“Daniel Isn’t Real” … but nepotism sure as shit appears to be. Miles Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon) and Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver) star in this psychological horror thriller that’s a Shudder exclusive. (It dropped Thursday, March 26.) I’ll let the cat out of the bag right away and fess up that I didn’t much care for the film. It was my first foray into Shudder’s library during a 30-day free trial (code: SHUTIN), but am still stoked that a streaming service focusing entirely on horror exists.
Luke (Griffin Robert Faulkner) has an imaginary friend named Daniel (Nathan Chandler Reid). (Do all child actors have three names?!!!) Daniel is actually Luke’s only friend as he’s an awkward, shy and troubled kid. Daniel convinces Luke to blend an entire bottle of his mother’s antipsychotics into a smoothie under the false assumption that it would give her superpowers if imbibed. Claire (Mary Stuart Masterson) almost dies. Claire can’t see Daniel, but knows of him. She prompts her young son to banish his imaginary friend by locking him in a dollhouse as a symbolic gesture.
Years later, Luke (Robbins) is a freshman in college grappling with schoolwork, social anxiety and keeping Claire under control. One night while sleeping over at his childhood home, Luke, in a fugue state, unleashes Daniel (Schwarzenegger) from the dollhouse. At first Daniel is a welcome presence – he helps Luke thwart one of Claire’s suicide attempts and gives him the confidence to romance not one but two young ladies (Sasha Lane, Hannah Marks). Soon thereafter Daniel’s true colors come to light as events spiral out of control landing Luke in worlds of trouble.
I’ve liked Robbins in the handful of things I’ve seen him in previously – “Blockers” and “Halloween” (2018) spring to mind. He looks like both of his folks, but also kinda resembles a prettier, younger version of Rosie O’Donnell with the haircut they have him sporting here. Acting-wise, he seems a bit out of his depth. I’m less familiar with Schwarzenegger. I suppose I remember him as Frat Boy in “Grown Ups 2” and as the bully character from “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse.” He too looks like his folks. He ain’t built like a brick shithouse like his old man however and in profile kinda resembles evil quarterback Tom Brady. His performance is actually the better of the two leads. It was nice to see Masterson in something again having remembered her from “Some Kind of Wonderful,” “Fried Green Tomatoes” and “Benny & Joon” and not having seen her in anything in sometime … I just wish they gave her more to play than a lady whose cheese is perpetually sliding of its cracker. Lane is an actress I tend to dislike in movies I actually enjoy (“Hearts Beat Loud” and “Hellboy” (2019) … yeah, I’m the one dude who dug it!). I haven’t seen her calling card performance in “American Honey,” which I understand is quite good. You know how people say Zoë Kravitz is like a Xerox of her mother, Lisa Bonet? Well, Lane feels like the Great Value version of Kravitz.
“Daniel Isn’t Real” plays like a hodgepodge of “Drop Dead Fred,” “Fight Club” and Robbins’ Dad’s own movie, “Jacob’s Ladder.” I hope and assume this exercise was therapeutic for co-writer/director Adam Egypt Mortimer (“Some Kind of Hate”), but it ultimately seems sensationalistic, insensitive and misguided in its depiction of mental illness. It lacks the depth to delve into serious issues with any real clarity. These peoples’ problems are merely the springboard to a smorgasbord of grotesqueries … some of them are admittedly rendered vividly via squishily practical makeup effects however. (Then again, maybe I should check my privilege as I’m not currently grappling with any form of mental illness?) “Daniel Isn’t Real” is yet another production of Elijah Wood’s SpectreVision shingle. Much like its forebears “Mandy” and “Color Out of Space” it too sports a synth score, trippy colors and moody lighting, but it all feels warmed over with nowhere to go and nothing to say.