It’s not hard to find metaphors for mental illness in the horror genre. You can examine The Shining‘s ghosts as a projection of Jack’s alcoholism, and that being the driving force of his violent tendencies. Or last years Hereditary, as it explores Annie’s intense family history of bipolar disorder and severe depression. Even as far back as 1920’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, where a twist is presented of mental delusions, instead of actual horrors.
It’s an interesting way to present mental illness with a guise of something supernatural. Or perhaps the truth being suppressed by modern medicine and shame. It leaves an existential debate when you exit the theatre – what was the reality? That’s the case with one of my favorites out of SXSW, Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real. Based on the novel “In This Way I Was Saved” by Brian DeLeeuw, who also serves as cowriter on the film, this movie is a beautiful and sad look on mental illness and coping.
Luke (Miles Robbins) is a young college student still dealing with the pain from his childhood. He dealt with his mother suffering from mental breaks, which resulted in his father leaving. Luke coped by creating Daniel, an imaginary friend. The two had an extensive make believe world that brought joy to Luke’s life… but Daniel had some bad influence on him and his mother forced Daniel to lock his friend away forever.
Twelve years later, Luke is successful in school, but struggles with the pressures of social interactions and also concern for his mother. With the support of his psychologist, Luke reconnects with his imaginary friend Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who is still a memorable part of his dark childhood. Daniel has aged like Luke, but is much more confident and suave. He knows exactly what to say in every situation, which Luke reaps the benefits of romantically. As Luke becomes more confident and vivacious, Daniel becomes more and more envious of his ability to live it out.
Part of the fun in these psychological genre films is your ability to decipher how you choose. You can make cases for both the real or the developed reality. It drives you to deeply examine everything you saw – the subtleties in the camera’s focus, a look by a secondary character – you could dissect it every single watch.
Daniel Isn’t Real takes you on a wild, trippy ride through this characters realization of his own possible schizophrenia, or perhaps the darker notion that Daniel could be real. Robbins delivers an emotional performance where the viewer feels immense sorrow for what he goes through, from childhood to his now present self.
Though you’ll certainly take a liking to Schwarzenegger’s portrayal of Daniel. He’s a charismatic, dark character with a cool Patrick Bateman vibe. It was totally unexpected on my part, as I’m not really familiar with his growing acting credits. He was effervescent at all times and you couldn’t help but be drawn to him… which is probably why our character Luke was too.
I can’t say enough great things about this film. From a more metaphorical sense of its plot, to the beautiful cinematography – it’s just a perfect film. Currently, Daniel Isn’t Real is available for rent or for streaming on Shudder.