Pitched somewhere between “Fight Club” and a Clive Barker creature feature, “Daniel Isn’t Real” is a wild ride worth taking to be in the company of its promising young stars.
It’s hard to ignore the celebrity lineage of Miles Robbins (son of Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon and seen in last year’s “Blockers” and “Halloween”) and Patrick Schwarzenegger (son of, yep, the former Governator and Maria Shriver). But on the basis of their confident and charismatic work here, they each stand a good shot at stepping out of their families’ shadows in the future.
“Daniel Isn’t Real,” directed and co-written by Adam Egypt Mortimer, is too small and strange a movie to be anyone’s true breakout, but it wouldn’t work without its leads. Or the strong efforts of younger actors Griffin Robert Faulkner and Nathan Reid, whom we first meet, respectively, as troubled youth Luke and his bad influence of an imaginary friend, Daniel.
After Daniel persuades Luke to play a trick that nearly costs the boy’s mentally unstable mother (Mary Stuart Masterson) her life, Daniel is banished to a literal dollhouse prison. Years later he reemerges into the life of grown-up Luke (Robbins) and promptly resumes raising hell (now in the strapping form of Schwarzenegger).
The question lingers: Is Daniel merely a projection of Luke’s subconscious or is he a demon in disguise? Based on the Brian DeLeeuw book “In This Way I Was Saved,” the film deliberately walks the line between a dramatic exploration of mental illness (and Luke’s crippling fear that he may end up like his institutionalized mother) and a mind-bending (and body-stretching) visually surreal horror thriller. That line isn’t always easy to sustain, and by the third act it all but disappears.
In supporting roles of varying importance, Masterson, Sasha Lane and Hannah Marks do enough to suggest the film would have been better off giving them more. But “Daniel Isn’t Real” remains a two-man show, and Robbins and Schwarzenegger are an odd couple worth believing in.
Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes
Playing: Alamo Drafthouse, Los Angeles; also available on demand