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Mental Health in Film: DANIEL ISN’T REAL

*Plenty of spoilers in this one, so if you have yet to watch Daniel Isn’t Real… do it before reading this. Trailer and synopsis below.

Troubled Luke suffers a violent family trauma and resurrects his childhood imaginary friend to help him cope. Charismatic and full of energy, `Daniel’ helps Luke to achieve his dreams, before pushing him into a desperate fight for his own soul.

Walking into Adam Egypt Mortimer’s Daniel Isn’t Real, I expected to be entertained. Already a huge fan of Mortimer’s work in his debut Some Kind of Hate, the anthology Holidays, and his comic Ballistic, I liked the writer/director’s sensibilities. I had heard a good amount of buzz surrounding Daniel and, knowing the subject matter, it felt like a film right up my alley. It was. Right from the beginning, I was transported into a story that oozed personality. It felt fresh and unique and the acting was quite solid… and then it happened. One moment in the film changed the entire thing for me. A moment that reached out of the screen and grabbed me by the collar, because it was felt at that moment like I was watching myself.

Luke is a soft-spoken and timid individual who as a child, allowed his imaginary friend Daniel to direct him to do various mischief-heavy activities, including poisoning Luke’s mother. Locked away for years, Daniel’s viciousness grows and grows and when Luke, feeling fragile and empty, lets Daniel out, his timid-persona is met with an arrogant amount of confidence, in the form of Daniel.

Soon Daniel tells Luke what to say to appeal to women, how to have self-pride, and how to function in a way Luke previously did not know how to, following years of mental health issues stemming from not only his own personal demons but those of his mother as well. Luke is weak, fragile and Daniel knows that, it’s his way into Luke’s psyche, to help control the vessel he so desperately wants to be in charge of. The moment I’m referring to in the above paragraph is one in which the film’s protagonist, Luke (Miles Robbins) is passed out, after partaking in some wild partying, egged on by his imaginary friend (and embodiment of his mental illness as well) Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger). Daniel drives Luke hard, to drink as much as he could, be as forthcoming with women as he wished he could be without Daniel’s help and pushes Luke to the point of vomiting and falling asleep on the bathroom floor. As Luke sleeps, Daniel picks up a nearby razor and grabs Luke’s hand, holding the razor to his throat. Daniel can infiltrate Luke’s mind and while Luke eats that up, thinking his “friend” is helping his life, the scary truth is that Daniel doesn’t really want to help: he wants to destroy. Daniel wants to break Luke down, little by little, until the suicidal ideation that he feels will be realized by his own hand.

It was at that moment, that I felt seen in a way that very few films have been able to make me feel seen. As an individual who has struggled with suicidal ideation since I was 7 years old, seeing a physical manifestation of a demon making their human vessel hold a razor to his neck in hopes that Luke will slice, I felt understood for a moment. I didn’t feel judged for looking out my bedroom window and wondering if one day, I will not be strong enough to defeat those telling me to jump. We all have a Daniel and those of us who struggle with depression, trauma, PTSD, and/or suicidal ideation, some days we’re just not ok. Seeing a character go through so many of the things I deal with every single day led me to realize even more how being empathetic and so emotional at times isn’t a bad thing and how art can not only be transformative in so many ways, but can also inspire you to get up and seek help.

There are very few films that I feel were cosmically made to speak to me. Obviously, in reality, they weren’t, but there are films and books and art that resonates with us so profoundly that you feel attached to those creations. Daniel Isn’t Real is one of mine. A conduit to the tackling of my own mental struggles, the film really does an excellent job of showing an individual who has so much going on in his life, that his depression, his trauma, and his mania becomes a physical person, one which conforms him until it begins to take him over and destroy his life.

There’s something so soul crushing about looking in the mirror and not seeing yourself anymore, seeing a face that you don’t recognize. Most days, when I look in the mirror, I don’t see Jerry Smith. I see my sadness, my depression. I see the scared little boy who wished there was a lock on his door, to keep the monster out when everybody fell asleep. I see the man who can’t get over losing his child. I see the cloud of despair and hopelessness that eats at me until it gets so bad, that I miss writing deadlines and opportunities because my depression and sadness won’t let me out of bed without kicking my feet and snapping my fingers repeatedly until the voices stop telling me to hate myself.

On the flip side to the scene I spoke of, there is another moment in the film, that sums up the battle inside so many of us and how powerful genre storytelling can be. Towards the end of the film, Daniel has taken over Luke’s body, killing Luke’s therapist and trying to kill the only person who truly accepts Luke’s eccentricities, Sasha Lane’s Cassie character. Luke is stuck in a hellish other world, while Daniel is set to destroy Luke and his life for good, a mission depression wants to succeed at in so many of us. Luke, finding the power to break out of the world, returns to quite literally fight himself, his pain, his sadness, his depression. The two sides fight on top of a building, swords in hand, battling for control. Sometimes when asked how it feels to suffer from severe depression, I’ve said, “it’s like fighting yourself to the death,” and seeing that scenes hit home with me so much. It’s a battle, a fight to the end, almost every day. Some are good and I win. Some are not good and it wins, but the fact is, we decided to fight. In a time in which so many heroes succumb to the overbearing pain in their lives, it shows how fragile and small we are, compared to the demon of depression and pain that runs through so many of us. The great part, though, is that we are built to survive and though that’s so very difficult at times, we make the choice to take that pain and suffering and fight it, until we come out ahead.

You can’t beat depression entirely, but you can deal with it and like Daniel Isn’t Real and its beautiful storytelling, you can decide to control where it takes you, you can learn to let go and allow it to come and go.

While Instagram bans the use of “horror” as a hashtag and the genre is still the bastard child to most of Hollywood, there’s something so powerful about knowing that you have a genre that has the ability to speak directly to your soul and in a lot of ways, help you learn how to deal with your own sadness, your own depression. Wonderful stuff.

Daniel Isnt Real Poster - Mental Health in Film: DANIEL ISN’T REAL

Written by Jerry Smith

Writer. Director. Drinker of Dr. Pepper.
John Carpenter is my religion. 666.

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