Adam Egypt Mortimer’s bleak second feature depicts mental illness as a supernatural battle for one’s soul.
Most of us have, or at least have heard, stories about small children talking to, or about, someone who isn’t there, even sometimes blaming their own naughty behavior on them. It’s cute and funny, but the more removed from our respective childhoods we get, the more we realize there’s an undercurrent of creepiness to it. Imaginary friends are both a testament to the limitless power of creativity, and the many odd and disconcerting ways the human brain reacts to trauma. We know where they come from, but where do they go when they’re not needed anymore?
Depending on your own history with mental illness, whether your own or a loved one’s, your feelings about Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real will range from “well, this is unsettling” to “god, please get me out of here, it’s too much.” Lifting heavily from Jacob’s Ladder (right down to casting Tim Robbins’ son in the lead), it’s true psychological horror, and a pitch black reminder of how nothing’s as dangerous to us as our own minds.
The film opens with the protagonist, Luke, as a little boy (played by Griffin Robert Faulkner), struggling with his parents’ failing marriage, and his mother Claire’s (Mary Stuart Masterson) descent into schizophrenia. Immediately upon witnessing the aftermath of a mass shooting, Luke is befriended by another boy, Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid), who just seems to appear out of nowhere at his side. Both highly imaginative and deeply lonely, Luke clings to Daniel, who’s always there to make up stories, get into sword fights with broom sticks, or just daydream. Oh, and play a “prank” that results in Claire overdosing on her medication and becoming violently ill.
At Claire’s insistence, Luke forces Daniel into an old dollhouse, symbolically locking him away and out of Luke’s imagination. Daniel doesn’t disappear, exactly, but lives on inside the dollhouse, a lit-in-red, hellish netherworld where you’re sent when your services are no longer required. Occasionally haunted by the sound of Daniel angrily pounding against his prison walls, Luke grows up from a troubled, lonely little boy to a troubled, lonely young man (Miles Robbins). Though he’s doing his best to try to make it on his own in college, Luke is both wracked with guilt over leaving his mother, whose mental health has only worsened, and fearful that he’s beginning the journey down the same path as her.
After telling his therapist (Chukwudi Iwuji) that he once had an imaginary friend, the therapist suggests to Luke that he bring him back, as a sort of outlet for his anxieties. This well-meaning advice will ultimately lead to disaster, but at first, Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) is just the friend Luke needs in such a challenging, scary time. Daniel, who, it must be noted, bears a resemblance to Donald Trump, Jr., right down to the slicked back hair and phony, empty-eyed grin, gives Luke confidence in talking to women, and even helps him with school work. He’s the cool older brother Luke has always needed.
Nevertheless, there’s a distinct air of menace to Daniel, and he bristles with anger whenever Luke pays attention to someone else, particularly Cassie (Sasha Lane), an artist he grows to like. Luke begins experiencing blackouts in which he’s evidently fully under Daniel’s control and doing things that are out of character for him, like sexting and using cocaine. Daniel becomes tired of not getting to have all the fun, and not getting the recognition he deserves for helping Luke to be, as he perceives it, his best self, even if that means flying into violent, murderous rages.
Though things get a little shaky when it delves into body horror and a vague explanation of Daniel’s true origins, the movie is at its best when focusing on the two leads and their strange, symbiotic relationship.
Certainly Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t the first movie to address mental illness by portraying it as an entirely separate being that fights someone’s “normal” side for dominance. This might be the most harrowing depiction of it, however, emphasized by the fact that even when he’s his “normal” self, Luke looks like he’s about thirty seconds away from falling apart. He didn’t invite Daniel back into his life, Daniel snuck in, through one of the rips in his rapidly deteriorating mind. The inevitability of it, given what we know about genetics and mental health, makes it particularly tragic. Even Luke’s mother, despite being so far gone she can’t live on her own anymore, recognizes what’s happening to him. “Not insane, awake,” Daniel corrects him at one point, all too eager to get the show on the road and help Luke discover who he really is.
Though things get a little shaky when it delves into body horror and a vague explanation of Daniel’s true origins, the movie is at its best when focusing on the two leads and their strange, symbiotic relationship. Luke, shambling around in his shapeless gray t-shirts and deer-in-headlights expression, is the perfect flipside to slick and stylish Daniel, who’s always there to provide Luke with just the right glib lie to get women interested in him. Robbins and Schwarzenegger are both excellent, feeding and bouncing off of each other like an actual real-life toxic friendship. Particularly poignant is the scenes in which Luke is trying desperately to hold himself together, aware that there’s something very not right going on in his brain, but increasingly powerless to do anything about it.
Some viewers may take pause with mental illness being depicted in Daniel Isn’t Real as a literal monster intent on destroying everything in its path. If you’ve struggled with mental health, however, then you’ll understand. It does feel like another you, demanding control of your mind and sometimes even your body — just look up all the myriad ways anxiety and depression exhibit themselves physically — insisting that its voice be heard. Not all of us are out there trying to kill people, but there’s another kind of death taking place, getting eaten up by the monster. The death of creativity, the death of joy, the death of hope.