DANIEL ISN’T REAL **** USA 2019 Dir: Adam Egypt Mortimer. 100 mins
Adapting Brian DeLeeuw’s novel, co-writer / director Adam Egypt Mortimer, following up SOME KIND OF HATE, opens his second feature with a jolt to the system, as a small boy named Luke bears witness to the impact of a diner massacre. While his mom (the excellent Mary Stuart Masterson) falls apart, Luke creates an imaginary friend named Daniel with whom he has fun – until the fake-kid goes too far and has to be locked in his Grandma’s old dollhouse. As a college freshman Luke (Miles Robbins) again unleashes Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) and the grown up version of his old buddy is even more mischievous and intrusive – but, despite the forging of promising relationships, Luke’s mind becomes ever more fractured.
Mortimer ambitiously balances harrowing scenes of relatable issues – as Luke strains to cope with his institutionalised loved one – with increasingly bold, disorientating flirtations with cosmic horror, ELM STREET-inspired rubber reality concepts and Cronenbergian physical mutations. Oscillating between surrealism and an unpatronising dramatization of mental illness, it doesn’t always work seamlessly, but it’s visually stunning for an indie feature, with particularly startling use of sound and colour. Robbins’ portrayal of a smart, intensely troubled, complex protagonist leads a strong cast: Masterson is seen in movies far too rarely while Schwarzenegger has a lot of fun in the potentially problematic role of the exhibitionist psycho who isn’t real. Sasha Lane confirms the considerable promise she showed in Andrea Arnold’s AMERICAN HONEY as Luke’s artistic girlfriend. It’s another intelligent, strong production from Elijah Wood and Daniel Noah’s SpectreVision genre brand.
Review by Steven West