The ‘shadow side’ is one of the great mysteries of human behavior. The idea that our most unsavory thoughts, feelings, and actions can be explained away by an unrideable ‘other’ within our subconscious is simultaneously reassuring and frightening. But why do we have such an extreme version of our personality, and can we curb its omnipotence? Those questions are lightly touched upon in Daniel Isn’t Real, a psychological horror-thriller about the damaging effects of schizophrenia. But the film’s ambitions are too large for its grasp.
The titular Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger) is the imaginary friend of Luke (Miles Robbins), a troubled slacker with a dark past. Luke first conjured Daniel up as a young boy after witnessing a mass shooting. Years later, Daniel has returned seemingly to help Luke with all his current problems – college courses, girl troubles, and a neurotic mother with similar psychological issues to Luke. For a while, Daniel’s presence appears to positively impact Luke’s ambition and assertiveness. Daniel also allows Luke to appear more knowledgable of literary history in order to impress his love interest, Cassie (Sasha Lane). But this honeymoon period is short-lived, as Daniel decides he deserves more power and control over Luke’s life.
This is all quite typical of the split personality trope, especially when the knowledge of the split personality is not a twist. We know off the bat the dynamic between Luke and Daniel, and their relationship poses several intriguing questions involving the human psyche… at least until the movie’s premise makes a crucial decision that nosedives all potential implications. But for a moment, the film seems to ponder the role of the shadow side in our daily life. This aspect is introduced with Cassie, an intelligent but guarded student who is interested in all things dealing with art, literature, and the study of the mind. Cassie reveals to Luke that she believes she can feel the presence of his shadow side, although she’s unaware of the true power of that presence.
Cassie’s ideas and beliefs about a healthy relationship between the id and the shadow side help inform Luke’s hope that Daniel isn’t a harmful influence. This hope is even more crucial given the mental state of Luke’s mother and her history with a personality disorder. Meanwhile, doctors urge Luke to not use Daniel as a scapegoat for his behavior – a meaningful lesson for those of us who run away from our regrettable actions. Perhaps what ails Luke and his mom can’t be cured, but it can be managed within the framework of a healthy life. Along the way, perhaps the story can provide inspiration to those that feel like they don’t always have control over their negative thoughts.
However, the movie reveals itself to have other plans. We learn that the real reason Daniel is in Luke’s life has nothing to do with the theme of mental health, as the film adds a completely unnecessary supernatural element. This essentially torpedoes not only the film’s themes but our engagement with its stakes. As Luke prepares to do battle with his inner self, the significance has been stripped from this fight, relying instead on genre cliches and an attempt at an “unexpected” finale. When the dust settles, what’s left is the potential idea that the mentally afflicted are destined to always be afflicted – an idea that is as troubling as it is lazy.
Even though the film takes an aggressive turn, part of it could work. There’s potential to explore the supernatural side of the mind, but the film’s budget seems to be too limited to depict that type of story. Instead, we’re left with a story that is just as schizophrenic as it’s subject. The film never stumbles upon anything profound and is too blandly shot to wow us with the most fantastical elements of the story.
Daniel Isn’t Real wants to be several things but doesn’t do any of them well. It wants to take mental health seriously but lacks the cohesion to bring the film’s themes into a relatable thesis. It wants to be a supernatural horror film, but the movie’s attempts at excitement fall flat. It’s just kind of dull and inconsistent – a mishmash of movies forming one incoherent mess. I’m sure there was a great version of this on paper, but the film teaches us above all else that often our imagination is better.