You would think a movie starring the son of action legend Arnold Schwarzenegger and actress Maria Shriver as well as the son of acting titans Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon would be a bland Hollywood nepotistic nightmare however it seems both seeds of celebrity royalty have much darker urges when it comes to their acting.
A fascinating and fantastical dive into modern day mental health issues Daniel Isn‘t Real deals with some heavy weight topics detailing the story of a young boys maturation and decent into madness helped along by his malevolent imaginary friend.
We meet Luke Nightingale as a child forced to deal with his mother’s terrifying mood swings and his father inability to cope with her. One day after fleeing another fight between his parents he witnesses the aftermath of a horrific shooting at a dinner and standing bemused in the crowd of onlookers suddenly Daniel appears beside him.
From that point on the pair are inseparable and Luke spends more time retreating into a fantasy world where he can be whatever he wants to be with Daniel always by his side. But one day Daniel suggests they play a game that has deadly consequences and for this Luke’s mother forces him to lock his accomplice away in a dolls house deep in his subconscious.
Twelve years later Luke (Miles Robbins) now at college is becoming more and more troubled and fearing he will succumb to the same mania his mother has he seeks council from a psychiatrist Dr Braun (Designated Survivor and When They See Us star Chukwudi Iwuji). When his imaginary friend comes up during a session the doctor suggests Luke unlocks his psyche allowing Daniel to return and reluctantly the anxious teen obliges.
In the same way Luke has changed so has Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) who appears as an enigmatic and suave adult and quickly he becomes Luke’s confident confidant advising the much shyer guy how to fit into college life and more importantly get the attention of girls.
Quickly Luke begins to alter his personality following Daniel’s every instruction in an attempt to woo feisty artist Cassie (American Honey’s Sasha Lane) but Daniel’s ultimate goal remains a mystery and the further he takes hold of Luke’s life the harder it becomes to separate the real world from the imaginary.
Directed by Some Kind of Hate helmer Adam Egypt Mortimer, who also co-wrote the script with Brian DeLeeuw the author of the original novel, Daniel Isn‘t Real is a twisted and unsettling film that expertly blends psychological drama with all out horror.
Credit must go to the main performers who throw themselves into their roles completely, working together to portray two sides of the same person and so much more. Miles Robbins brings Luke to life with all the nuances a teenager with his upbringing and psychological sensibilities would have whilst as Daniel, Patrick Schwarzenegger is wonderfully seductive, his sinister side simmering underneath a veneer of charm that decays as the story progresses.
The duo are aided by a great support cast including the aforementioned Chukwudi Iwuji and Sasha Lane as well as Dirk Gently’s Hannah Marks and a great turn by Mary Stuart Masterson as Luke’s mother, who has one of the hardest roles in the whole movie.
The subject of mental health and human psychology has come up in horror films since early cinema such as in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari although with a stronger focus in our current society of understanding, accepting and easing the stress and strain modern life puts on us all, the theme seems even more relevant now.
The issue when bringing such a complex real life element into a horror film is that it must be handled sensitively and seriously while still balancing the urge to entertain and frighten the audience.
Sadly some recent attempts such as Lucky McKee’s atrocious Kindred Spirit seem as simplistic and insensitive as outdated bargain bin B-movie horrors of the past, treating psychological illness as an easy explanation for the villain to start staring off into space, talking in a creepy voice, acting crazy and killing people.
Luckily Daniel Isn‘t Real is much more intelligent and although not as perfect and powerful as Brian Hanson’s The Black String, which is one of the finest and frightening horror films on the subject of mental health in recent years, it treads the line between sensitivity and sensationalism with aplomb knowing just where to place its feet at all times.
Merging a dark fairy tale with a heartfelt portrayal of mental health issues Daniel Isn‘t Real delivers a satisfying yet disturbing story that will stay with you long after the credits role.