(director/writer: Adam Egypt Mortimer; screenwriter: novel In The Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw/Brian DeLeeuw; cinematographer: Lyle Vincent; editor: Brett W. Bachman; music: Chris Clark; cast: Miles Robbins (Luke), Patrick Schwarzenegger (Daniel), Sasha Lane (Cassie), Mary Stuart Masterson (Claire), Hannah Marks (Sophie), Chukwudi Iwuji (Dr. Cornelius Braun, school counselor), Griffin Robert Faulkner (Luke at 8), Nathan Reid (Daniel), Chase Sui Wonders ( Makayla), Andrew Bridges (Richard), Michael Cuomo (James), Andrew Ayala ( Waterfront security guard); Runtime: 96; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Lisa Whalen, Elijah Wood; Ace Pictures/Samuel Goldwyn Films; 2019)

“Tells a dark story by trying to shed some light over its millennial protagonist dealing with mental health issues and a personal demon.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It had its premiere at South by Southwest on March 9, 2019. It’s a freaky psychological horror pic with a lot of Drop Dead Fred (1991) in it. It’s slickly directed and written by Adam Egypt Mortimer (“Some Kind of Hate”), a vast improvement over his first mental health film. It’s based on the 2009 novel In The Way I Was Saved by Brian DeLeeuw, who is also the co-writer.

The brazen opening has a bloody mass shooting at a diner. It’s witnessed by the 8-year-old Luke (played as a kid by Griffin Robert Faulkner), who finds himself taken to a nearby park from the horrific crime scene by an imaginary friend Daniel (Nathan Reid). Luke’s a lonely rich boy, whose NYC brownstone dwelling parents are always fighting. With Luke down in the dumps, he is helped at home by the appearance of the imaginary friend and they become playmates, have regular sword fights with brooms as swords, and seem happy together. Luke’s mentally challenged mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) looks on and is glad Luke is so chipper playing with an imaginary friend.

But when mom believes the imaginary friend got her son to poison her drink, she places him in the dollhouse and forbids him to play with her son.

When we move onto Luke as a young adult, he’s a freshman attending a boarding college and having adjustment problems at school. He’s now played by Miles Robbins. At a student party Luke has a seizure. The sinister and cocky Daniel (now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger) seizes the opportunity to re-enter his vulnerable friend’s life. He helps Luke relate to the coeds, has Luke assert himself with his not too appreciative roommates and gets him to partake in drugs. When Luke falls for the free-spirited artist Cassie (Sasha Lane), Daniel takes over Luke’s body and makes it with his girl.

Things start getting really weird from hereon, as Luke descends into uncontrollable madness and has far-out hallucinations while Daniel completely takes over his body by crawling inside him (offering some wonderfully trippy visuals).

The downtrodden Luke seeks help from a therapist (Chukwudi Iwuji), who advises him to confront his demon. Thereby Mortimer sensitively lays out Luke’s mental illness and battle with the demon in him as he fights for his sanity.

The third act builds to a major payoff, as Luke battles his alter ego for control.

It’s an intelligent psychological thriller, one of the year’s better horror stories, that tells a dark story by trying to shed some light over its millennial protagonist dealing with mental health issues and a personal demon.

Daniel Isn't Real review

REVIEWED ON 10/11/2019       GRADE: A-