SXSW Film Review: Daniel Isn’t Real
Enter the imaginary anti-friend
By Marc Savlov,
1:00PM, Thu. Mar. 14, 2019
As a young boy, Luke (Miles Robbins) witnesses a hyperviolent shooting that results in not only grief, trauma, and loss but also the genesis of an imaginary bestie, Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), a playful, sword-fighting rapscallion with the eyes of Damien Thorn.
After one of Daniel’s “games” nearly results in a potentially fatal incident, Luke’s mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) forces him to lock Daniel away in an eerie literal and metaphorical doll house. Problem solved?
Not so fast. Cut to the present, where the adult Luke is in college, caring for his increasingly mentally unstable mother and seeing a Lou Reed-quoting psychologist (Chukwudi Iwuji) as his childhood PTSD continues to plague him. After an evening spent with his fragmenting mom, Luke makes the transformative (and decidedly unwise) decision to “unlock” Daniel, now a smooth talking, gleefully hedonistic hipster straight out of the American Psycho playbook. The Id to Luke’s already damaged Ego, Daniel encourages Luke to, you know, have fun! But what at first appears to be a sort of mutual support society between the two quickly escalates into something far darker and more complex, especially after Luke meets-cute and then hooks up with artistic free spirit Cassie (Sasha Lane). Some threesomes are just bad news for all involved.
The latest from director Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate), Daniel Isn’t Real is a mind-bendingly freaky psychological horrorshow that crawls disconcertingly into your head and stays in there, gnawing away, long after the credits fade. Painstakingly shifting between multiple possible realities, it’s enough to give Freud nightmares were he not already likely spinning in his grave.
Compelling performances from the entire clearly game cast escalate the believability of Daniel Isn’t Real, keeping multiple psychoses at least visually grounded in a gritty NYC reality until the third act, when all hell (or something like it) breaks loose. Echoes of the creeping, dissociative paranoia of Rosemary’s Baby and The Tenant-era Polanski run throughout the film, but Daniel Isn’t Real is very much its own distinct fever dream of chimerical unease. Highly recommended.