His parents arguing again, young Luke Nightingale leaves the house and explores his brownstone New York neighbourhood unsupervised; a bad decision under normal circumstances, he stumbles upon the aftermath of a shooting, but also meets a boy his own age who becomes his friend, except that Daniel isn’t real.
Luke’s mother Claire struggling with severe mental health issues, her son having an imaginary friend is less of a concern than a blessing; if it keeps him happy and out of trouble it is one thing less to worry about until Luke starts blaming Daniel for dangerous behaviour and Claire has to force him to banish Daniel from their lives, imprisoning him in the dollhouse.
Years pass, Luke goes to college but still visits his mother once a week, watching her health deteriorate. Believing that the same will happen to him, his therapist tries to allay his fears, telling him not to afraid of his imagination but instead to tap into. A symbolic action, Luke unlocks the dollhouse; what harm can it do? After all, Daniel isn’t real.
Directed by Adam Egypt Mortimer from a script co-written with Brian DeLeeuw based on DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I was Saved, The X-Files‘ Miles Robbins is Luke, traumatised and reaching out for help, and Scream Queens‘ Patrick Schwarzenegger is Daniel, confident, impulsive and above all manipulative, indulging his desires through Luke but quickly pushing him into patterns which are anti-social and self-destructive.
From a cosmic whirlpool to swirling clouds in a cup of coffee to the vortex of the food blender making a toxic cocktail, Daniel Isn’t Real is a maelstrom of image and emotion as the real and imaginary are blended together in an inescapable nightmare of the interior mind, Donnie Darko caught between the guidance of Cyrano de Bergerac and the excess of American Psycho.
With a background in the New York avant-garde art scene the film is at times painfully hip, and Dirk Gently‘s Hannah Marks and Hellboy‘s Sasha Lane are Sophie and Cassie, the two women in Luke’s life, the latter an artist who from her studio loft can at least tangentially perceive the shadow Daniel casts, while The Stepford Wives‘ Mary Stuart Masterson is Claire, a deeply damaged woman who despite everything can sometimes see through her own pain to help her troubled child.
A commentary on identity and self-reliance told through the lens of mental health, Daniel Isn’t Real does not malign the sufferer, Luke told by Doctor Braun that it is “a fact of brain chemistry, not a judgement of character,” but with their obvious lack of money worries that is a comfort which is, for the most part, available only to the wealthy.
Premiered at London FrightFest before a limited cinema engagement, the disc release of Daniel Isn’t Real will contain a commentary from and interview with Mortimer, deleted and alternate scenes and a video essay by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas considering the influence of art history on the film, in particular the work of Hieronymus Bosch.
Daniel Isn’t Real is on limited release from Friday 7th February and on Blu-ray from Monday 10th February