Daniel Isn't Real Movie Review

Written by Rachel Knightley

Released by Arrow Films


Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer
Written by Brian DeLeeuw and Adam Egypt Mortimer
2019, 100 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on 7th February 2020

Miles Robbins as Luke
Patrick Schwarzenegger as Daniel
Sasha Lane as Cassie
Mary Stuart Masterson as Claire
Hannah Marks as Sophie


A perfect storm of his mother’s mental breakdown, the break-up of his parents and, in escaping their argument, witnessing the aftermath of a shooting in his neighbourhood, first makes Luke’s childhood imaginary friend appear. While Luke’s mother tries to give her son a stable home and accept the idea of Daniel into it, Daniel’s influence threatens his mother’s life and Luke finally locks him in his grandmother’s dolls’ house. As a college student, suspecting his hallucinations are returning, Luke contacts a therapist – but is not ready to share how quite real Daniel’s influence was. Meanwhile, his mother is still in the house where Daniel is locked and her own mental health is deteriorating again.

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One of the great pleasures of this articulately visual psychological drama is how immediate and believable characters and relationships are, and how fast and fully they are established. Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate) and co-written with Brian DeLeeuw from DeLeeuw’s novel This Way I Was Saved, gorgeous gothic symbolism sits behind the closed doors of modern American city living, channelling but challenging the Jekyll-and-Hyde identity balance: the friend Luke needed to help him survive emotionally at first, will also be his destruction if he doesn’t escape his influence.

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Miles Robbins (Luke) and Patrick Schwarzenegger (Daniel) are excellently cast in this friendship that liberates then limits and imprisons. Along with excellent portrayals of the highs and lows of a toxic friendship, the characterisation of Luke’s mother and their loving but imploding stalemate is quietly profound. In what might have been a trivial subplot in other hands, Mary Stewart Masterson creates a character we wish we could follow longer. Luke’s interactions with local artist Cassie (Sasha Lane), from initially crashing into each other on the street to building the courage to truly connect, provides reason and need for Cassie to grow from false bravado to true courage – and the passing conversations about naked and nudity in art, juxtaposed with an outstandingly intimate sex scene that communicates real intimacy without revealing anything but emotion is impressively done. Luke’s Daniel-initiated pursuit of Sophie (Hannah Marks) also creates a compelling character arc where, unlike Luke, Sophie frees herself from the toxic situation of her proximity to Daniel, remaining the hero of her own life and not a bit-part of someone else’s. Neat psychological truths sit alongside the visual influences of Bosch, Svankmajer and Clive Barker – enjoyable references for those who know, without ever upstaging the action for those who don’t.

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With such a beautifully articulate beginning (and not a moment is wasted in setting up consistent and believable characters, relationships, setting and stakes), it is frustrating so many intriguing and nuanced psychological questions are opened but left to ebb then finally eclipsed by Daniel’s own story becoming, ironically, too real. The device of the therapist with “doubts” about western medicine getting too involved in the patient’s life and going to his home to battle Daniel head on (though an excellent performance from Chukwudi Iwuji) leads to the marginalising of schizophrenia and its treatment as an uncomfortably disposable subplot device in a story about a being who moves from one child to the next. As such, it abandons the bigger and potentially scarier questions the film has established the style, intelligence and curiosity to address. Both approaches are, of course, perfectly legitimate choices in principle and there will be fans of the film it begins as and the one it becomes. However, like Luke and Daniel’s separate identities, their fight against each other in the available space was never going to let either truly survive.


Movie: 3.5 Star Rating Cover

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