It is all in the title. Lots of films – which won’t be named here to avoid spoiling – only reveal the imaginariness of a character’s ‘invisible friend’ as a Big Twist™, but we know from the very outset of Adam Egypt Mortimer‘s second feature (co-written, like his 2015 debut Some Kind of Hate, with novelist Brian de Leeuw) that, well, Daniel isn’t real. Rather he is conjured as a playmate, confidante and guide by lonely young Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) at a moment when he is having to deal not only with the breakup of his parents and the breakdown of his schizophrenic mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson), but also with the trauma of witnessing the aftermath of an arbitrary, extremely violent act. A sly, cocky troublemaker, Daniel (Nathan Reid) plays id to Luke’s ego, until little Luke, led dangerously astray, is forced to lock this part of himself away.
In other words, the genre apparatus of demonology and body horror in Daniel Isn’t Real is expressly a figment of the adult Luke’s unravelling subjectivity, as we see his emerging mental illness taking over from the inside. Now aged 19 (and played by Miles Robbins), Luke must again face Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) who, like the imaginary friends from Ate de Jong’s Drop Dead Fred (1991), Liam Regan’s My Bloody Banjo (2015) and Brandon Christensen’s Z (2019), returns from his hiding place to reawaken Luke’s long-repressed creative, confident, chaotic side, with tragic results.
In keeping with the manic interiority of its narrative, Daniel Isn’t Real is an overwhelming sensory experience, deeply disorienting and increasingly distressing. Adult Luke is first seen sitting on a literal edge, and from then on he occupies a metaphorical one too, constantly at odds with himself and staring, even falling, into the abyss – all thanks to a delusion that is very real.
Anticipation: Liked Some Kind of Hate
Enjoyment: Woah! Disorienting, disturbing, magisterial!
In retrospect: Schizophrenic buddy pic is the real deal
© Anton Bitel