Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real—which premiered at the 2019 SXSW Conference & Festivals this weekend—is the most homoerotic film about mental illness since Fight Club, and it shares the latter’s dark, gritty, sex-fueled style but to a much more nightmarish purpose.
After Luke, a young boy living in New York City, sees his parents get into a marriage-ending argument, he steps outside and views the victim of a violent mass shooting.
From that point on, Luke begins hanging out with Daniel, an imaginary boy his own age who seems to bring out the best of Luke’s imagination: They duel, using broomsticks as swords; draw pictures and go on imaginary parachute jumps together.
But when Daniel convinces Luke to poison his mother, Luke’s mother commands him to lock Daniel away, and he does.
As Luke enters adulthood (now played by Miles Robbins), he’s dismayed by his mentally ill mother who now staples book pages to the walls, searching for hidden messages and claws at the mirrors, disliking what she sees. He also feels less imaginative than he did as a child.
So at the advice of his therapist, Luke leans into his imagination a little more. As he does, he takes up his camera and seduces a female artist who seems to appreciate Luke’s warmth and dark side. To increase his imagination and allure moreso, Luke decides to unleash Daniel again… but this time Daniel is all grown up.
At first, Daniel seems like a perfect mate. Played by Patrick Schwarzenegger, he’s stylish, charming and assertive. Daniel helps Luke smooth talk a beautiful girl at a party, do waaaaaay more shots than he should and play pranks on his misogynist roommate. Everyone seems to like and respect the newer, more adventurous Luke and his photographic work.
But it quickly becomes apparent that Daniel is much more than just Luke’s id. He’s an embodiment of much older and darker appetites that are entitled, impatient and vengeful. And he’s quite willing to beguile and bend Luke to his will, even if it means harming his body and reputation.
It’s here that the homo-tension really sizzles: Daniel obviously admires Luke’s confidence and Luke literally wants Daniel’s body. But while they leer closely to one another, watching with pride as the other has sex, they’re also critical of each other, often competing against each other in a jealous rage.
As Luke begins losing his ability to control Daniel, Daniel emerges as a monstrous embodiment of mental illness gone unchecked, causing Luke to become aggressively sexual and frighteningly self-destructive.
In short, Luke becomes like many young men in a country where mental illness is often fetishized as genius and then ignored, blessed with creative potential yet tormented by complex trauma. Mental illness can make people feel expressive and free, but it comes at a cost. And even if these people haven’t harmed themselves or anyone else (just yet), that doesn’t mean they’re well.
For too many men, “Daniel” is real and he’s destroying their lives. And this reality makes Daniel Isn’t Real most frightening.
Mortimer’s tale has a dark ring of familiarity, set with moody lighting, claustrophobic camerawork and an ominous modern score. Its costumes and special effects make a great devil of Daniel, alternately fashionable and truly frightening as his demonic form emerges. Sasha Lane, who plays Luke’s arty love interest, also emerges as a strong character of color very much welcome to the mostly white horror genre.
Though the film isn’t perfect (and its same-sex relationship is mostly platonic), it’s still deliciously dark and edgy with style and intelligence to spare.