Daniel Isn't Real - Review
You can’t go back, only forwards.
Daniel is a lot of things. It would be incredibly presumptuous of me to act like I could list everything he symbolizes (at least without writing a novella length review). Immediately, he forms an immaculate portrait of trauma during the formative years; a layered biological response to things outside the grasp of the kid in question. As things progress he takes on innumerable harsh realities of life, things like the abrupt end of childhood, the darkness that resides in us all, what our inward selves desperately wish we could face outwards, and well, basically all of the staples of human desire.
Luke didn’t have an especially great childhood. The very first scene provides a particularly upsetting catalyst to what would become trauma that stays with him his whole life. Right after that the situation at home completely deteriorates, leaving him without healthy emotional support. So he does what any kid does after traumatic experiences: diverts himself, specifically in the form of an imaginary friend, Daniel. The relationship between Luke and Daniel is an incredibly masterful allegory that perfectly captures the coping mechanisms children develop.
Skip ahead to Freshman year of college. Luke has grown, but the trauma never really went away; a primal response suppressing it and forcing it out of sight. He has become the perennial hopeful slacker. Thoughts of art, women, and life permeate throughout him, but pragmatism ingrained into him by an overbearing mother makes him push it all away. Suck up his pride and pursue a more practical education. Of course it’s not what he wants, and things slip through his grasp as he lays mired in his inner conflict. Leading him to visit his mom whose mental health has broken down into a series of terrifying delusions.
At the mortal crossroads Daniel finds his way back into Luke’s life, along with the discovery of hereditary mental health issues that’d make Ari Aster blush. Culminating in a beautifully choreographed surreal spiralling that extends the endless metaphors introduced by Daniel beyond count.
The pure wonton menace exuded by The Terminator clearly hasn’t skipped a generation with Patrick Schwarzenegger. Pinballing between suave, debonair, explosive, manipulative, and world’s best wingman. A force beyond determined to seek out its prey, reminiscent of the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101.
Miles Robbins’ performance is definitely of serious note as well. Seamlessly building himself out as a character that hits a little too close to home (in a good way) to a man on the brink of a total mental meltdown, and the overwhelming internal storm that builds when those things clash. The intersection of his hopes and desires, his conscious inner-self, his unconscious inner-self, and his internalized views about himself fleshes the character out into a third dimension that is seriously lacking in modern cinema.
The movie progresses in a string of surreal vignettes that culminate into a block of metaphors that weave together seamlessly without losing their own identity among their party. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of what these characters and this movie have to offer me. Among the depth of the characters, Daniel Isn’t Real is a shockingly empathetic tale that sheds light on just how terrifying losing your sense of reality really is, in a way that exceeds the usual drudgery (and even really solid works of its ilk). I think if you gave me a month to digest Daniel Isn’t Real, I’d come back with an entirely different review. There’s a lot to get out of this movie, and I look forward to picking it clean.
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Review by James Romans and Matt Grenier