DANIEL ISN'T REAL movie poster | ©2019 Samuel Goldwyn Films

DANIEL ISN’T REAL movie poster | ©2019 Samuel Goldwyn Films

Rating: Not Rated
Stars: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter McRobbie
Writers: Adam Egypt Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw, based on the novel IN THIS WAY I WAS SAVED by Brian DeLeeuw
Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer
Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
Release Date: December 6, 2019

DANIEL ISN’T REAL is a horror movie that builds steadily under Adam Egypt Mortimer’s direction. Mortimer and his co-screenwriter Brian DeLeeuw, adapting DeLeeuw’s novel IN THIS WAY I WAS SAVED, thankfully don’t play the is-this-real-or-a-delusion game for too long. Instead, they opt for a definitive answer that allows for some imagery that might please David Cronenberg, although DANIEL ISN’T REAL is warmer than much of Cronenberg’s work.

As a little boy, Luke Nightingale has traumas piling up around him. His mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) is mentally unwell, his father abandons the family, and he witnesses the aftermath of a mass shooting. No wonder Luke suddenly has an imaginary playmate named Daniel, whom only Luke can see. Claire is happy her son’s imagination is cheering him up – until Daniel gets Luke to do something dangerous and awful. Claire and little Luke are in agreement that Daniel should be banished.

And Daniel stays gone, until Luke (now played by Miles Robbins) is in college. Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) returns, super-cool and at first super-helpful, coaching Luke in how to say the right things to young women and how to make a strong impression. But Daniel has his own agenda, which starts with mocking Luke to get him to comply, and develops from there.

DANIEL ISN’T REAL is well-paced, letting us take in what’s happening and then upping the stakes. Robbins gives a multifaceted performance that allows for all sorts of emotions. Luke has agency, so that despite some mopiness, we’re on his side. Schwarzenegger exudes charisma that easily turns to menace. He’s also not afraid to be truly (intentionally) irritating, so that we’re very much rooting against Daniel as the film proceeds. Masterson excels at portraying a woman whose issues make sense to her, even as she can see how they register on others, and Sasha Lane scores as a perceptive artist who befriends Luke.

There’s more plot here than we might expect, although viewers may deduce what’s going on before Luke does. It helps to pay attention to details that at first seem as though they may be mere mood-setters. There’s a visual consistency that keeps us within the film’s universe, with dark spaces of various sizes, so that we’re perpetually on edge. There’s also strong use of props and production design, including an inspired toy castle.

A lot of movies with similar concepts would tilt the fantasy/reality balance differently. DANIEL ISN’T REAL is happy to give us metaphors, but it also goes for the throat in a very dynamic manner.

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