Adam Egypt Mortimer’s sophomore horror feature Daniel Isn’t Real begins in the world of a child. Importantly, this is a world of violence even before the film’s eponymous menace even first appears. This child is Luke – played briefly but impressively by Griffin Robert Faulkner – and as he clings desperately to his stuffed toy Wilbur, he witnesses from an unseen nook in the dark, ominous space he calls home his mother and father mid-flight in a vicious, violent domestic dispute. As chance would have it, his imaginary friend Daniel (Nathan Reid) first appears just in time to provide Luke with an outlet, an ally and – most importantly – a friend.
Offering Luke the comfort and companionship he so desperately needs during this difficult, transitional period as his parents’ relationship breaks down, his now single mother is at first mildly charmed by her son’s escape into the world of solitary play through imaginary sword fights with broomsticks and a made-up boy she cannot see. But things take a turn when Daniel’s darker side appears, and both Luke himself and his mother are shaken by the consequences. Following his mother’s advice, he banishes his imaginary friend to the confines of an antique doll house until years later a doctor suggests that it might be time to bring Daniel back out into the world again; a therapeutic way, perhaps, for the troubled adult Luke (Miles Robbins) to embrace the positive aspects of his repressed, childhood imagination.
While well-intentioned certainly, this unleashing of the now adult Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) into Luke’s life is far from the optimum solution the latter needs to deal with the realities of his mother Claire’s mental health collapse, the latter played to perfection by Mary Stuart Masterson. This is the set-up for Daniel Isn’t Real, Mortimer’s film adapted from the 2009 novel In This Way I Was Saved by Brian Deleeuw, who also co-wrote the screenplay with the director. Like Mortimer’s broadly misunderstood debut feature Some Kind of Hate (2015), Daniel Isn’t Real pivots around shared thematic fascinations with power, identity and the functional utility of the supernatural to assist those marked by their lack of agency to gain a sense of autonomy, freedom and desperately needed emotional and psychological strength, whatever the costs.
The challenge thrown down by Daniel Isn’t Real lies in its very title; it’s an astonishingly sophisticated premise that hinges emphatically upon questions on ontology. Mortimer at first presents a rational, normalized world of facts – brooms aren’t swords, Daniel isn’t real – but rather than seeking the traditional horror journey that finds its protagonist travel back towards some kind of functional status quo, in Daniel Isn’t Real there was never a satisfactory status quo for Luke to begin with. In short, facts and reality have little value in the face of actual, long-term trauma when you’re just trying to survive any way you can.
The world of Daniel Isn’t Real is one where reality is constantly in flux, manifesting not only through Luke’s painful journey, but in the film’s striking aesthetics also. Mortimer constructs Luke and Daniel’s world from elements of the liminal space between a Hellraiser-like supernatural nightmare zone and the almost banal everyday grimness of living with mental health issues, be they your own or someone you care for. Daniel Isn’t Real isn’t a puzzle film; it offers no riddles for us to solve. Rather, it is a tragedy, a story of deep pain and the often-complex ways that fantasy and reality can collide with deep, life-long trauma and illness.
There’s an unrelenting, driving sadness that propels Daniel Isn’t Real which speaks in a simple, elegant way about human suffering and the lengths we will go to numb the pain any way we can, even if it means surrendering our logic, our agency, and our very rationality. There are no finger-wagging life-lessons here, there’s no either/or binaries that can result in tidy ‘explanation’ that deletes the overwhelming tragedy of Luke’s seemingly inevitable downward spiral.
Daniel Isn’t Real reveals that at its best, horror can depict with crystal precision experiences, feelings and sensations that are often very difficult to articulate in any other way. Mortimer employs the supernatural cinema toolbox to construct a cartography of pain itself, which he renders with enormous sensitivity. Riffing on horror tropes, concepts and motifs that we otherwise find pleasantly familiar, Mortimer takes us well out of that comfort zone, throwing our assumptions back at us in this extraordinarily humane, compassionate tale about life and the damage it can do.