Producers: Daniel Noah, Josh C. Waller, Lisa Whalen and Elijah Wood Director: Adam Egypt Mortimer Screenplay: Adam Egypt Mortimer and Brian DeLeeuw Cast: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter McRobbie, Michael Cuomo, Andrew Bridges, Griffin Robert Foster and Nathan Reid Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films
While watching “Daniel Isn’t Real,” one’s mind may wander back to Richard Kelly’s remarkable “Donnie Darko” (2001), another tale of a troubled teen’s descent into madness. That brilliant film went largely unappreciated at the time, though it has since built a cult following, and though its power was diluted by the misguided “director’s cut” of 2004, which made overly explicit what was wonderfully ambiguous in the original version, it remains a remarkable debut feature. (A pity its promise wasn’t realized. Kelly’s follow-up, “Southland Tales” of 2006, was an elephantine mess, and “The Box,” his 2009 adaptation of Richard Matheson’s “Button, Button,” a misfire. He’s made no films since.)
But while “Daniel Isn’t Real” might remind you of “Donnie Darko,” it’s not in the same league.
Based on the 2009 novel “In This Way I Was Saved” by co-scripter Brian DeLeeuw, it begins with a prologue in which young Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner), upset by the infighting between his parents, wanders into the street, where he witnesses the bloody aftermath of a mass shooting. As he stares at the corpses, he’s joined by another boy who introduces himself as Daniel (Nathan Reid).
Only Luke can see Daniel, and adopts him as his closest—indeed, only—friend. His psychologically troubled, now single mother Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) tolerates his imaginative obsession until Daniel’s influence becomes increasingly dangerous, so she insists that Luke lock Daniel up in her mother’s incredibly elaborate dollhouse and do without the emotional crutch he provided.
The approach apparently works for awhile, because when we next see Luke, he’s a college student (Miles Robbins)—a distracted, uncertain one, to be sure, but apparently much better off than his mother, who has descended into deep schizophrenia and has to be institutionalized. Luke worries that he’s fated to follow her example, and makes a central mistake by effectively releasing Daniel from his imprisonment; he’s aged too, and is now played by Patrick Schwarzenegger—as handsome, unflappable and arrogant as Luke is haggard, nervous and shy, and even more likely to incite trouble than ever. The question is whether he’s the manifestation of Luke’s split personality, or the embodiment of a malignant force operating independently, with its own agenda?
The film provides answers, of a sort, as it follows Luke and Daniel on their peregrinations. Daniel is constantly urging Luke to loosen up and act on his urges, and to an extent he does when he meets Cassie (Sasha Lane), an artistically-minded free spirit who paints a portrait of Luke in which the shadow of Daniel—or his evil reality—seems to be looming in the background. Concerned that Daniel might be a malevolent entity that’s attached itself to him, Luke asks a school counselor (Chukwudi Iwuji) for help, but the overeager fellow conducts a therapy session that discloses the full horror of the connection Luke and Daniel have.
It’s at this point that the film becomes increasingly given over to special effects—handmade ones rather than expensive CGI—and under Adam Egypt Mortimer’s unsteady hand becomes increasingly odd, with Kent McAnneny’s production design and Lyle Vincent’s cinematography growing more and more lurid. (A dreamlike visit to that palatial dollhouse looks like a Halloween amusement-park attraction.) A confrontation between Luke and Daniel is inevitable, of course, and it’s equally obligatory that Cassie should be involved. The combat hearkens back to the games the boys used to play as kids, but the outcome is hardly so benign.
Both Robbins and Schwarzenegger work hard , but neither really succeeds in bringing his character to life. The latter draws what’s basically a caricature of a cool stud with a malicious gleam in his eye; he looks great, but it’s all empty pose. The former, on the other hand, is so pained and recessive, with a mop of unruly hair constantly falling over his brow, that it’s difficult to believe his final transformation into a fighter. Lane forces things as Sasha, and Iwuji overdoes the therapist’s naiveté, but Masterson adds a touch of class to the proceedings as poor Claire.
The central conceit of “Daniel Isn’t Real” is an intriguing one, and for a while the film fascinates; but it loses its way by descending into full horror-movie mode in the last half-hour—and not managing it very well.