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With: Miles Robbins, Patrick Schwarzenegger, Sasha Lane, Mary Stuart Masterson, Hannah Marks, Chukwudi Iwuji, Peter McRobbie, Andrew Bridges
Written by: Adam Egypt Mortimer, Brian DeLeeuw, based on a novel by Brian DeLeeuw
Directed by: Adam Egypt Mortimer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 96
Date: 12/06/2019

Daniel Isn't Real (2019)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Best Unfriend

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even if it never really does a memorable deep-dive into psychological or emotional territory, this effective horror movie starts with a good idea, and stays true to that throughout its running time.

In Daniel Isn't Real, young Luke suffers through his parents' breakup as well as random violence around his city neighborhood, but imaginary friend Daniel comes along to make life better, and more fun. After Daniel coaxes Luke into pulling a dangerous stunt on Luke's mother (Mary Stuart Masterson), Luke locks Daniel away in a dollhouse.

Years later, now a troubled college student, Luke (Miles Robbins) finds his mother's mental health deteriorating. One night, he unlocks the dollhouse and finds a full-grown Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), ready to be friends again. At first, Daniel's influence is fun, helping Luke talk to girls like Sophie (Hannah Marks) and Cassie (Sasha Lane). But things take a darker turn as Luke begins to realize that Daniel may be something more than imaginary.

Based on a novel by Brian DeLeeuw — who co-wrote the screenplay with director Adam Egypt Mortimer — Daniel Isn't Real lightly travels some familiar territory, such as Fight Club, Donnie Darko, and American Psycho, and stays somewhat on the surface, especially with the passive main character, and the way his world helplessly crumbles around him. The Daniel character is more fun, providing a hint of intoxicating power before letting slip a more threatening side.

Yet director Mortimer manages to keep a snappy, "B"-movie pace, and these things never really bog down the story. The movie ups its game with its shocking opening sequence, an act of random violence in a cafe, that doesn't seem to tie in to the rest of the movie until we begin to realize that evil itself can be random.

Daniel Isn't Real saves some of its best stuff until the climax, as the characters move from the flat, dreary look of the movie's cityscape to a climax in a sinister, cavernous, eerily-lit place. There, we get shocking transformations and a bloody showdown that briefly jar the movie to life. It leaves off with enough of a satisfying click to make it worth a look.

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