Sentimentality is often maligned or treated as a negative thing in the genre of Horror. It frequently becomes the reason why a film isn't "scary," or why it isn't "horror". However, sentimentality is what makes Daniel Isn't Real one of the most truly horrific films this reviewer has seen in the past decade, or more. Far from being detached, cold, or clinical, Daniel Isn't Real is raw...
...The emotional and psychological depths the story unflinchingly explores, elevate this movie into an unmissable cinematic experience. Unlike the imaginary friend of the main character, this film is about as real as it gets.
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer and written by Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw (the film is based off of his novel), the opening scene of Daniel Isn't Real is shocking in ways most independent films wouldn't dare attempt. It's jarring, violent and deftly executed. However, the moments that directly follow it are even more of a gut punch. You'd be hard pressed to find a film released this year whose opening minutes are even more impactful. Trauma is a hell of a beast, and Daniel Isn't Real tackles the subject of trauma and mental illness in ways that don't attempt to explain, place judgement or offer any solutions. It just thrusts you into the world and feelings, and it's one of the most visceral and honest looks at people on the edge of sanity. This film places a lens on those who are so close to letting reality slip, as well as the ones who already have gone over the edge. It's a beautiful view of how the darkness inside can overpower our intentions and take control of our lives.
Daniel Isn't Real stars Miles Robbins as Luke, a child of divorce who at a very young age witnesses something a child should never see. This leads him to meet Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), an imaginary friend who shows up right after Luke's traumatic experience. Daniel is a foil and an escape for young Luke, but eventually an even darker event leads Luke to lock Daniel up in his grandmother's dollhouse. Years go by and Luke is off to college, and that leaves his mother alone at home. As time passes, strange things are happening at Luke's old house and after a few unnerving phone calls, Luke decides to visit his mother at home to make sure she is alright.
Luke's return home is one of the most heartbreaking moments this reviewer has ever seen captured on film. His arrival uncovers that his already unstable mother is slipping even further out of reality. She has torn almost every page out of every book, covered all of the mirrors because she doesn't like seeing how she looks. It's devastating to Luke and the viewer alike.
As they do in horror films, events take an even darker turn which leads Luke to release Daniel from the dollhouse. At first, Daniel seems to be helping as Luke tries to help his mother recover. Daniel even seems to be trying to help Luke out with tests at schools, girls, and reclaim the imagination that time has taken away from him. However, everything starts to unravel as it becomes increasingly clear that Daniel wants control. Control of Luke, in terms of time and company. As the film progresses, Luke starts to fight back to maintain control of his life, taking the viewer on a harrowing journey as we watch him wrestle with his trauma.
Daniel Isn't Real is also an exploration of toxic masculinity and its insidious effects on the world around us. This is a vital conversation to be had in film, and the way it is addressed here is pitch perfect.
A film this tense and raw would not work unless the actors were believable and authentic. This cast is carried through with expertly crafted performances by the two leads. Both put in equally strong performances that will surely garner much critical acclaim.
However, what makes this movie soar is the believability of the supporting cast. The Mother (Mary Stewart Masterson) is remarkable in her limited screen time, deftly portraying her own struggles. Hannah Marks gets the least amount of screen time but absolutely excels with a powerful, nuanced performance. She plays Sophie, a classmate of Luke's who he meets at a party where Daniel convinces Luke he can get her number. From the introductory conversation to her final moments with Luke, she absolutely steals every scene. Sasha Lane, who plays Cassie, gets more screen time as Luke's love interest. Lane's grace and understated performance has something brewing under every line she delivers, and it makes her a compelling and important part of the story.
Therapy is a big part of this movie. Luke, who tells his therapist that he feels that his mother would not like him seeing a doctor, admits that he feels like he is losing his mind. The film once again doesn't overtly explain or attempt to find a solution, but when Luke's therapist uses more mystic traditions it creates one of the most memorable scenes in all of film in 2019. It is fascinating to see a story that attempts to confront trauma head on, without being preachy or heavy handed. It often feels as if the viewer is sitting in on a therapy session, and it works on every level.
Production wise Daniel Isn't Real is a stunning feat of achievement, reminiscent at times of the best parts of a Clive Barker film. Every minute is packed with intensity, focus and attention to detail in terms of color, sound, and pace. Adam Egypt Mortimer knows how to tell a story and uses every aspect of the medium to full effect. His incredible crew helps create a meticulously fleshed out world that feels as if these characters are walking amongst us, which most assuredly they are. The score that helps move the story along is also brilliant, and worthy of its own review.
Films like Daniel Isn't Real are vital for independent cinema and need to be seen and explored by as many people as possible. There are few movies out there that tackle the subject matter at hand with such an understanding and empathic view. Even when it is casting a spotlight on the darker corners of the world, it's still told from a caring perspective that delves into mental illness and imagination. It's a masterclass in storytelling and intention. It's also scary as hell.
Daniel Isn't Real appears on VOD on December 6th from Spectrevision and Samuel Goldwyn Films.
By Justin Drabek
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