Daniel Isn't Real

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 10/18/19 14:23:01

"Not a particularly interesting demon or delusion."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

SCREENED AT THE 2019 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: The trouble with using supernatural horror as a way to examine real-world issues is that while the metaphor may be pretty good, inevitably, someone has to bring up the thing you're trying to talk about on its own, usually before committing to one direction or the other, and for some in the audience, that makes the direction you go a disappointment. Like, dealing with schizophrenia can be scary, and demonic possession is just silly made-up stuff in comparison. I suppose it can go the other way, too.

There's not a whole lot of doubt where things are for Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson); she's got some pretty severe mental health issues to start. Her young son Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) seems healthy until witnesses the aftermath of a shooting and meets his new friend Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). Daniel is the sort of imaginary friend who seems pretty harmless until he encourages Luke to help his mother overdose on her meds, and a horrified Luke locks Daniel up after that. At least until seven or eight years later, when another incident with his mother has college-aged Luke (Miles Robbins) more stressed than usual and Daniel (Patrick Schwarzeneggar) reappears. Luke knows Daniel is imaginary, but he kind of needs a voice telling him to be more outgoing and follow his heart - both in his studies and when he meets Cassie (Sasha Lane) - and Daniel has grown smart enough to bide his time and not ask too much of Luke too soon.

Eventually, Daniel is persistent and demanding enough that Luke starts reading about demons and researching the shooter from the day Daniel first appeared, and that's where Daniel Isn't Real starts to develop real problems: Every indication that the title might not be the case makes the film seem a little less consequential, a story about arbitrary mythology rather than a troubled kid trying to deal with more than he's able to handle. Sure, it may be a case of Luke being a highly unreliable narrator, but that's maybe worse; it makes the movie a guessing game with what really happened an exercise left to the audience, and that's a tough needle to thread. Director Adam Egypt Mortimer (adapting a novel by Brian DeLeeuw into a screenplay with the author) seems too enamored of the horror imagery to fully commit to undercutting it, giving the audience an imaginative other world and Exorcist references more often than signs that he's being seduced by his own fantasies.

It's not bad as long as it's in grounded territory - Miles Robbins is quite good as a self-doubting college student, and it hurts not a whit that Mary Stuart Masterson provides a scary but sympathetic preview of what his future may hold. Watching the two of them work, together or separately, is the best thing the movie has going for it; Masterson is terrific as Claire, raw and disconnected and still concerned about her son, while Robbins shows the weight of dealing with her while so young himself. It's likely difficult to make a whole movie out of that, and the college life stories tend toward just being an environment that's convenient to ignore when not moving the horror story forward.

Patrick Schwarzenegger, unfortunately, is mostly annoying as Daniel - it may not be entirely on him, but there's nothing about this "imaginary friend" that feels seductive or tempting enough to push Luke in a bad direction- but things get much worse in scenes where Daniel fully takes control of Luke. Those feel like Robbins doing an imitation of Schwarzeneggar's performance rather than the character being possessed, highlighting that much more how the material that is supposed to be chilling can just play as goofy and fake.

Mortimer and his crew set 'Daniel Isn't Real" in a scrappy corner of New York, and at its best it fits there perfectly, a world where everybody is flawed and afraid that those flaws can be crippling. And maybe you can convince yourself that it never really leaves there, and all the supernatural is just Luke's deteriorating sanity, but it's a lot of effort for the viewer even if the supernatural half is rough enough to make one want it to be that movie.

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