“Daniel Isn’t Real” writer-director Adam Egypt Mortimer made his feature debut a few years ago with “Some Kind of Hate.” In that horror fantasy, a teenage misfit gets her revenge on some bullies because, as her therapist tells her, she “must destroy the impulses that got you here.” Mortimer takes that advice in his second film by destroying the impulses that made his first film a lifeless corpse. By trading a splatterfest premise for a metaphysical head trip, and by trading skin-slashing for head-scratching, the director has opened up his world to so many more ideas. Why chop off heads when you can get into your character’s mind? Besides, is there anything scarier than the thought of becoming your parents?
Eight-year-old Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) discovers the horrors of becoming his parents the hard way (more on that in a little). He’s a little guy in a big city, and his loneliness is creeping up on him. Mom is mentally ill and lawyer dad isn’t in the picture, so Luke wanders around Manhattan playing hide and seek with himself. What he finds doesn’t lift his spirits. A coffee shop across the street has just had a mass shooting; bodies lay battered in the street. Luke joins the surrounding crowd where he meets a friend named Daniel. He seems nice enough. Just one problem: Like the stuffed animals lying around his room, Daniel isn’t real. He’s a figment of Luke’s imagination.
Imagination might be more important than knowledge, but in Mortimer’s film, imagination kills. After a fateful incident with pills, mom insists that the imaginary Daniel be locked away in grandma’s dollhouse. Strobe lights turn on inside when he locks the miniature door. A collage of neon oranges, blues, and purples flash from the windows, colors that make up the mise-en-scene a decade later when Luke (Miles Robbins) is in college, where he’s now a wallflower looking to blossom. A student who can only think about sex and death, kinda like Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, only less optimistic. Luke panics over the realization that he’s turning into his parents. Like his father, he went to school to become a lawyer. Like his mother, the voices in his head (that’s Daniel returning from the dollhouse) are making him go insane.
Everyone has voices in their heads. But Daniel, as played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, is a flesh and blood entity that can only be seen by Luke, with a hedonistic font along the lines of Christian Bale in “American Psycho.” It isn’t long before Daniel is possessing Luke, and Mortimer’s psychodrama is possessing the audience. With its swirl of intoxicating images, hallucinatory pace and intriguing insights on psychosis, the director captures the confusion of a growing mental illness. Mortimer examines how the past can affect the present, as Luke’s schizophrenia was inherited from his mom, which was likely passed down from her parents.
His script isn’t anywhere near as terrifying as last year’s similarly-themed “Hereditary,” and the atmosphere isn’t anywhere near as abrasive as this year’s “Uncut Gems,” which is also about a descent into chaos. What it does have going for it is ambition. That goes for Brett W. Bachman’s retro score, the body horror—skulls being ripped open by the jaw, bodies morphing into other bodies—and it especially goes for the razor-sharp performances. Robbins brings empathy to his deranged hero, while Schwarzenegger gives it his all as a cocksure psychopath. Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks, and Chukwudi Iwuji are also worth mentioning for their work in supporting roles. All of it amounts to an indie-horror flick that makes you think: Am I becoming my parents? [B]