DANIEL ISN’T REAL…but This Movie’s Questions Definitely Are

Spectrevision’s latest takes a journey into mental darkness

Many film lovers will remember Drop Dead Fred; the dark comedy from the early 90s starring Phoebe Cates and Rik Mayall in which a little girl’s imaginary friend returned in her adult years to help her to sort out troubles with her personal life. I always felt that that movie, which was goofy, silly and happily surreal, also came off as a little bit terrifying when it looked at the reasons why a child would feel the need to conjure up another human being and call them their friend. The new indie horror Daniel Isn’t Real shares the same premise as Drop Dead Fred and takes an even darker turn, throwing in an element of mental illness as it guides its audience on a true mind trip . With shades of Jacob’s Ladder and Insidious, the thoughtful and spellbinding Daniel Isn’t Real is another highlight from the folks at one of the most refreshing and innovative film companies today.

In Daniel Isn’t Real, young Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) is struggling to cope with his parents’ divorce and the effect it has on his fragile mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson). One day, Luke encounters a boy his own age named Daniel (Nathan Reid), whom he becomes best friends with. The funny thing is, Luke happens to be the only person who can see Daniel. The two enjoy plenty of time playing and getting into mischief until an incident forces Claire to demand that Luke forget about Daniel. Years later, a college-aged Luke (Miles Robbins) finds himself trying to cope with life in his 20s when through a string of events, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) returns to cause more mischief.

Daniel Isn’t Real does its duty as a piece of modern-day indie horror by delivering on the fright and squeamish factor (fans of the moment Geena Davis physically extends her mouth in Beetle Juice won’t be disappointed), but this is a movie more concerned with exploring the subject matter at the heart of it more than anything else. No time is wasted in examining Daniel’s presence in Luke’s life as more than just a figment of his imagination. This is a movie curious about schizophrenia and the various forms it takes, with Daniel being the most creative form of all, according to the movie. The makers behind Daniel Isn’t Real take an honest approach at showing how Daniel starts off as Luke’s way of dealing with his parents’ tumultuous marriage, his father’s departure and his mother’s depression. The young boy finds an escape into a world of adventure that shields him from the sadness of his home life. Even though such a theory isn’t all that groundbreaking, there’s an odd beauty to the way the movie handles it matched with an impending doom. But the film admirably goes a step further to spend some quality time with Claire and her own battle against schizophrenia. Witnesses his mother’s descent into madness, Luke’s relationship with Daniel becomes all the more toxic and co-dependent as he not only once again finds him a safe presence worth clinging to, but also a representation of the fear that he might actually become his mother.

The central theme that flows throughout Daniel Isn’t Real is the question: Who exactly is Daniel? Beyond any sort of medical or scientific theory or diagnosis, there’s the idea that Daniel is the very sort of person Luke wishes he could be. He’s confident, fearless and more in control and assertive than Luke has ever been. For all intents and purposes, Daniel may very well be Luke’s fantasy image of himself. On another level, there’s the idea that Daniel may be Luke’s rebuke of the very kind of toxic masculinity which he himself feels threatened by. A more passable notion is the suggestion that Daniel is Luke’s dark side, the part of himself which he tries to fight, but inevitably can’t help but be drawn to in some way. Indeed, Daniel Isn’t Real may be a near perfect representation of the duality that comprises all of us; the light and the dark joining forces to shape our many various complexities as we try to make sense of them all. It’s a little interesting to note that the two central characters are only interesting and dynamic when they’re in each other’s company. While we spend time with both Daniel and Luke individually, these moments are never as interesting or telling as the dangerously intriguing chemistry that the two create when their together, signifying perhaps that a person maybe needs a balance of the tender and the terrible in order to fully and visibly exist as a fleshed out person.

Movies like Daniel Isn’t Real are a dream for young actors such as Robbins and Schwarzenegger, who tear into their parts with gusto and commitment, helping to sell the premise in a way that raises the movie’s stakes. The sons of well-known acting powerhouses, both actors have clearly done their homework and prove themselves as dynamic screen figures with their own individual styles. Sasha Lane does some truly soulful work as Cassie, a disenchanted New York artist with whom Luke finds himself taken by and Masterson does some of her best work in years as a woman who has spent years trying to fight the growing madness within her.

The good people over at Spectrevision continue their streak of trying to put a new face on the world of indie horror. As a company, the films they’ve put out haven’t been shy from embracing the shock factor, but never have they offered up a project so heavy in such stark and rich ideology quite like this. This actually calls to mind for me the legendary William Castle; the horror showman director from the 50s and 60s who specialized in films chock full of cheap (but fun) scare gags. At the peak of Castle’s success, the filmmaker directed the great Barbara Stanwyck in what would be her last film; the psychological thriller The Night Walker. Much like Daniel Isn’t Real, The Night Walker (the story of a woman who has trouble deciphering between the dreamworld and reality) aimed to combine chills with the mystery of the human mind. While that film was never fully appreciated for what it tried to do, there’s hope that the many strengths of Daniel Isn’t There will be celebrated in years to come as both a pulsating horror movie and a journey into the darkness of the human soul.

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