Film reviews and more since 2009

Imaginary (2024) review

Dir. Jeff Wadlow

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

2024 seems to be the year of the imaginary friend in cinema. This weekend alone gifts us two films that approach the concept in different ways (horror and comedy). In a couple months, we’ll get a large-scale fantasy revolving around figments of our imagination in John Krasinski’s IF. While we’re at it, let’s see if we can imagine two new, competent presidential candidates to round out the end of the year.

Jeff Wadlow’s Imaginary exceeds expectations by confidently delivering its concept with strong, relatable characters and solid world-building around a particularly unnerving concept. Screenwriters Wadlow, Greg Erb, and Jason Oremland toy with audiences by inserting multiple twists into the story, including a couple unreliable endings amidst an aesthetically dynamic third act. Where the sea of PG-13 horror is oft-shallow and murky, Imaginary is its own creative island.

The film revolves around a conjoined family, where Jessica (DeWanda Wise) tries to be the stepmother-figure to her husband’s two daughters: Taylor (Taegen Burns), a moody teen, and Alice (Pyper Braun), a plucky young girl. Jessica tries to ingratiate herself after the family moves back in to her childhood home, but is left to her own vices when father Max (Tom Payne) leaves to go on tour with his band.

When Alice finds a stuffed bear in the old house, she names him Chauncey and he becomes her companion. Jessica starts noticing Alice’s attachment to Chauncey grows to the point where Alice alleges that her stuffed bear made her write a to-do list of things for her: “something that scares you,” “something that hurts you,” etc. Then, things start to get especially sinister with Jessica recalling nightmares from her own childhood.

Wadlow and company spend a considerable amount of time getting you acquainted with the family, particularly Jessica and the girls. Like Night Swim two months ago, a great deal of attention is put on the interpersonal relationships amongst the family members. While there is believable tension between Jessica and Taylor, there’s real chemistry between Taylor and Alice — Jessica and Alice share some lovely moments together too. Thanks to a trio of amiable, human performances, most notably from Wise, who really shines here, the drama in Imaginary does hold more weight than you’d anticipate.

Much of the film takes place within the walls of the family’s home, adding a feeling of claustrophobia. Reliant on jump-scares, to somewhat of a fault, Wadlow at least employs some intriguing angles throughout. There’s a great sequence of Jessica checking underneath a bed that’s made engaging thanks to various framing techniques. Wadlow’s camera also gives the illusion of Chauncey’s movement without showing it on-screen (his brow collapses into an angry face, his head turns subtly between shots).

It all builds to the final act, which, blessed so, is more than a cacophonous showdown between the human characters and Chauncey’s many forms inside the house. Without revealing too much, Imaginary transports us to a haunted house ostensibly designed by M.C. Esher. The practicality of the sets is duly noted too. Better yet, we spend time in this locale, are made spatially unaware of our surroundings, and the writers employ some welcomed trickery in the narrative structure so we’re not quite sure if things are wrapping or ramping up.

Seasoned horror fans might see Imaginary as a lame-duck offering early-in-the-year ahead of more promising releases. It very well might not have much staying power, and I doubt any clips would make a Blumhouse highlight reel down the road. But Wadlow, Erb, and Oremland make good on their promise of delivering imagination and surprise us with characters we’re glad stick around long enough to make an impact.

NOTE: Imaginary is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: DeWanda Wise, Taegen Burns, Pyper Braun, Tom Payne, Veronica Falcón, and Betty Buckley. Directed by: Jeff Wadlow.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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