Patrick Schwarzenegger is almost unrecognizable as Daniel, the twisted imaginary friend in Adam Egypt Mortimer’s horror film Daniel Isn’t Real. His black hair is slicked back, revealing a cold, inhuman stare. Daniel also has the swagger and fashion sense that rivals Justin Bieber. He looks like what Donald Trump Jr. thinks he looks like. In a movie full of bold choices, Schwarzenegger’s manic performance is the most memorable.
The film is an adaptation of In This Way I Was Saved, by Brian DeLeeuw, who also wrote the script. A young boy named Luke Nightingale imagines Daniel one day at the park, shortly after witnessing the aftermath of a deadly shootout. Luke and Daniel become best friends, engaging in every escapist fantasy they can come up with. Luke’s mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) is coping with her mental illness and her recent divorce, so she is happy that her son has found a friend.
Daniel is harmless until he becomes envious of Luke’s relationship with his mother. Adam Egypt Mortimer’s camera keeps tight focus on the deathly jealous stares of young Daniel (played superbly by Nathan Chandler Reid). Imaginary friends are usually sweet and endearing, but Daniel has a darker agenda. He convinces Luke to commit a deviant act to his mother. Afraid to face him again, Luke banishes his only friend to a large dollhouse in his room.
Luke lives a relatively normal life until he starts having episodes during his first year of college. He constantly has to help his mother with her treatment, and he’s afraid he might be following the same path. College is a stressful time for a young adult, and research shows that mental illnesses usually show themselves during someone’s college years. Terrified and lonely, Luke reawakens Daniel.
Most of older Daniel’s swagger is that he has an answer for everything. He guides Luke to safely handle one of his mother’s episodes; he encourages Luke to embrace his artistic side. Daniel even makes a great wingman, the perfect cure for Luke’s social awkwardness. Their friendship thrives as long as Luke is doing exactly what Daniel says. If Luke ever gains the confidence to act independently, Daniel slips back into his evil tendencies. The film is a constant tug of war for the ownership of a single soul.
Miles Robbins (Blockers) is sympathetic and vulnerable as the older Luke. His descent into paranoia is troubling, primarily because the source of his madness lives inside of his mind. Egypt Mortimer gives Luke no space to take a breath. The film is full of hyperactive energy and momentum, and scored using aggressive electronic music. Daniel Isn’t Real assaults the senses with harsh portrayals of Luke’s mental illness, while respecting it enough to not let it become fetishized. The cinematography is textured and striking, creating multiple distinctive horror images.
The film’s other standout is Sasha Lane (American Honey), who plays a fellow artist that has an intuition for Luke’s dark side. Her character becomes the emotional core of the story and Luke’s beacon to find his way back to sanity.
The disturbing body horror and a few directorial choices pay homage to 1973’s The Exorcist. The movie’s biggest risk is a plot device similar to the John Woo classic Face/Off. While entertaining, the silliness of the trick slightly mishandles the gritty tone of the rest of the film.
Other bold artistic choices are made in Daniel Isn’t Real, some of which don’t work. For a film that takes a lot of swings, there are more hits than misses. Daniel Isn’t Real is a fearless horror examination on trauma, imagination, and what we inherit from our families. It makes for an imperfect but entertaining watch, at least to see how Patrick Schwarzenegger pulls off a kimono.