Traumatised by the aftermath of a mass shooting and troubled by the break-up of his parents’ marriage, shy child Luke is befriended by the cooler, more confident Daniel and soon the two boys are spending all of their time together. The only problem is Daniel isn’t real; he’s a figment of Luke’s imagination, a coping mechanism to allow Luke to deal with his abandonment issues, but when he encourages Luke to mix up a special smoothie for his mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) containing a potentially fatal dose of her anti-psychotic medication, it’s time for Daniel to go away, Luke and his mother metaphorically locking Luke’s imaginary friend up in the family doll’s house and throwing away the key.

Years later, the now adult Luke (Miles Robbins) is in college and in therapy, wracked by depression and anxiety and terrified that he’s going to end up experiencing the same mental health issues that have virtually destroyed his mother. Lonely, isolated and badly in need of a friend, the vulnerable Luke releases the hip, charismatic Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), a smooth, practically reptilian, incel Tyler Durden who shakes up Luke’s life, getting him drunk, getting him laid and encouraging him to abandon law school, follow his heart and become a photographer.

Luke’s heart also leads however to manic pixie dream girl artist Cassie (Sasha Lane) who offers him the promise of tentative romance. But now that he’s out in the world, there’s no way Daniel’s going back in his box; he’s going to have some fun…

I wanted to like Daniel Isn’t Real.

I really did.

A low budget riff on Fight Club and Jacob’s Ladder, from its arresting opening where a nice young man walks into a coffee shop and brutally guns down staff and patrons with a pump action, the bloody and traumatic aftermath witnessed by our protagonist as a child, to its vision of New York as an everyday hell of red neon spattered basements, industrial rumbles, half-glimpsed threat and Boschian fantasy, Daniel Isn’t Real grabs you and pulls you in. But, as great as Patrick Schwarzenegger’s Daniel is – and Schwarzenegger is great, the best thing in the film; his alpha male embodiment of Luke’s raging id a preening narcissist that’s closer to Patrick Bateman: The College Years than to Fight Club’s charismatic Tyler Durden – I had problems with Daniel Isn’t Real.

Robbins’ Luke is a bland cipher whose mental decline ultimately takes a back seat to the sneering, leering Schwarzenegger’s malignant imaginary friend, but the film’s depiction of mental illness is all surface, superficial, first a punchline then a red herring, and, as a disabled person and activist of 20 years with personal experience of depression and mental health issues, Daniel Isn’t Real made me very uncomfortable – and not in a good way! It’s glib, shallow, trivialising the very real experience of mental illness and serving up a soup of cod psychoanalysis, Jungian metaphor and mysticism before switching gears into overwrought body horror.

Unoriginal and uninspired, Daniel Isn’t Real is as slick and hollow as Daniel himself…     

DVD Review: Daniel Isn't Real
2.0Overall Score
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