I will start this review by saying I spent most of this movie with my Nintendo Switch in hand, planning where to put bamboo on my growing island and figuring out how I was going to pay Tom Nook off for this bridge. I did not play it because I was bored with the film, but I felt that I needed something to ground me so I can keep watching it because if I wasn’t playing my game, I would have quickly exited out of Shudder and not finish the film. This review is going to be difficult because I found myself bewildered, annoyed and shocked by the callousness of this film.
While this seems like a dragfest from hell, I will assure you that I have been intrigued by Adam Egypt Mortimer’s psychological horror film, Daniel Isn’t Real, since I heard so much buzz around it in 2019. What I was not expecting was this visually stunning film to be weighted down by its writing and the dynamic of the two leads, Luke and Daniel (played by Miles Robbins and Patrick Schwarzenegger respectively). However, I would argue that the dynamic between Luke and Daniel just doesn’t work because of the film’s flippant nature concerning mental health and trauma.
For the sake of this review, I will take a compliment sandwich approach to it, in which, I have a compliment section, a criticism section, and another compliment section. On nearly all the posters and promotional materials, they boast that this is from the producers of Mandy and it definitely shares the same psychedelic, Eldritch cosmic horror vibes where swirling colors of red and orange trigger a sense of dread in you. The aesthetics and visual language for this film is simply gorgeous to the point where I was mystified by how Cassie (played by American Honey‘s Sasha Lane) had her head down as she was painting and her braids were in full view and captured in such loving detail. The dark synthwave score by Chris Clark was to die for as it surprisingly fit with the film’s clumsy thematic tone and pace, but then again, I adore anything with a synth soundtrack.
I realize how ironic it is that most of my praise is aimed towards how Mortimer and co. were able to create a perfect moody movie with their use of atmosphere, cinematography and music because the story and the acting from our two leads is where the movie lost me completely.
To review this movie is ultimately to spoil it because Daniel’s existence in of itself is a spoiler. So, here is my warning for you to close out if you want to watch this movie unspoiled.
The film starts with a mass shooting and a young Luke stumbles upon the scene after the police has shot the shooter dead after wandering away from home as his parents argue about the state of his mother’s mental health. There’s no amount of words in the English language that can help me pretty up that sentence. As we see Luke, still clutching his stuffed animal, gaze upon the shooter’s bleeding corpse, Daniel magically appears next to him, asking if he wants to play with him. From this moment forward, the film continues a complete disregard on how to portray mental illness with a sliver of empathy.
As a viewer, we are asked to be sympathetic towards Luke as his imaginary friend decides that he must take over as Luke is mentally weak, but the same level of care and sense of characterization is not given to Claire (played by Mary Stuart Masterson), his mother. We are supposed to identify and feel for his trauma while the trauma that triggered his mother’s deteriorating mental health is an afterthought and quickly forgotten as the movie became the Daniel Ruins Everything show.
Regarding Robbins and Schwarzenegger, it is totally unfair to bring up their famous parents’ acting abilities and body of work, but I find myself trying to reconcile that these weren’t up and coming indie actors who were doing their best as I caught myself seeing their parents’ resemblances in their faces. Robbins does his best as a floppy haired quasi-burnout who suddenly realizes that having a malevolent imaginary friend guiding the course of his life only goes so far. Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, is doing his best snooty, egotistical fuckboy, but when he has to dial in that Daniel is cosmic horror fuckboy, his maniacal laughter and cartoony movements just looks bad on screen.
However, in the spirit of an hour ago me saying that I would put in a compliment, the chaotic salmon shorts and boat shoes with no socks energy Schwarzenegger gives off as Daniel becomes increasingly sinister works when it is done well. While Robbins looks like an Instagram dreamboat version of his dad with even stronger eyebrows, he portrays desperation and someone who is getting closer and closer to losing it. While I have not talked much about Sasha Lane as Cassie (truthfully, there’s nothing to even talk about when it comes to her), Lane brings a warmness that this neon-tinged cold movie desperately needed more of.
There was a movie that could have talked about how the human brain creates security blankets in times of trauma and what would you do when that security blanket decides that you’re too weak to carry on, but that movie does not exist in this.
Daniel isn’t Real is streaming exclusively on Shudder and can be rent and bought on demand on all digital platforms.