Close this search box.

Imaginary Film Review: Light on Frights

Pyper Braun as Alice looks at the Teddy Bear in the film Imaginary

Imaginary uses a basic horror movie template to create a fairly average film that struggles to frighten or grab the imagination.

The Blumhouse movie has a very distinct style and flair that has made them one of the signature names in Horror over the last two decades. Their choice to empower directors to tell unique stories from an auteur perspective with a small budget has led to some of the most significant movies in the genre, like Paranormal Activity, Get Out, and The Black Phone. Recently, they have begun leaning into more poppy ideas, targeting a younger demographic with films that are less so horrifying and more playful, such as M3GAN and Five Nights at Freddy’s. Imaginary, a new film from director Jeff Wadlow, strives to bridge this gap, yet is unsuccessful at being as gripping or as fun as the other films mentioned. Instead, it uses formula and tropes to craft a watchable but forgettable film.

Imaginary is the story of a woman named Jessica (DeWanda Wise) who is adjusting to life as the new stepmom of two daughters, Taylor (Taegen Burns) and Alice (Pyper Braun). When Jessica and her new family decide to move back into her childhood home, Alice discovers an old teddy bear she names Chauncey and develops a deep connection with him. At first, this seems normal to the family, but as time passes, her relationship with Chauncey becomes something more ominous and strange. Soon we learn that before she left this house under mysterious circumstances, Jessica had a strange relationship with an imaginary friend too…

The premise of the film is, of course, that sinister imaginary friends are trying to harm a family, which, off the jump, is a difficult thing for any filmmaker to sell to an audience. Imaginary never really rises to that mark, as its lore and internal logic were not strong enough to get me to find the film horrifying in any way. The idea would work best as a kind of tongue-in-cheek horror-comedy that is in on the joke of how silly it is, similar to M3GAN. However, this movie takes the horror of imaginary friends fairly seriously the whole way through, which leaves its horror rendered relatively ineffective. There are a couple of decent jump scares and some decent special effects, but for the most part, the film doesn’t generate any real thrills.

In addition to weak horror elements, the film struggles with an average script that doesn’t interestingly elevate the premise. The main emotional throughline of this film is that Jessica wants to be a good mother to her step-children, but she is struggling because she is dealing with the unresolved family trauma that caused her to leave her childhood home, and her father, behind when she was only five. However, Imaginary never really connects these two things well enough to give Jessica a strong and compelling arc. Instead, it becomes based on wanting to win the approval of her new daughters, but this doesn’t allow Jessica to do any growing as a character.

Rather, she gains their love by simply continuing to behave in the same kind and gracious manner that she has been throughout the movie and waiting for the girls to accept her. If, for example, we watched Jessica grow from an unwilling stepmother to a woman willing to sacrifice anything for her children, that transformation would have been fairly engaging. Instead, the film keeps her character one-dimensional, which makes it harder to connect emotionally to the movie.

DeWanda Wise as Jessica is in a room looking at something in distress in the film Imaginary
DeWanda Wise as Jessica in Imaginary (Parrish Lewis/Lionsgate)

Additionally, many of the motivations of the supporting characters are poorly executed. The main obstacle Jessica has to gaining the love and respect of her step-daughters is the eldest, Taylor, who is cutting and rude throughout the film to her step-mother. However, this is chalked up to her being upset that this new person has come into her life to replace her mother, a familiar trope that isn’t given any fresh nuance. The younger daughter, Alice, is portrayed as a happy, kind girl who is slightly lonely. She is taken with Chauncey presumably because she is bored, which is entirely reasonable and believable. And their father, Max (Tom Payne), is simply there, with little character or personality at all.

What is poorly done here is that the film alludes to the girls’ biological mother’s mental health issues being the reason for their separation, something which Imaginary doesn’t engage with in any meaningful way. This could have been a great way to add some emotional stakes for the girls, but the film never does. Instead, it is just an odd detail that never is incorporated into their characters in a meaningful way. Also, there is another major character, Gloria (Betty Buckley), who is largely a vehicle for exposition whose motivation is incredibly flimsy and very poorly handled. Lastly, at times the dialogue can be almost comically bad, which further makes the film.

Imaginary is at its best when it isn’t taking itself too seriously. When the film tries to be funny, it usually succeeds, with the supporting character of Liam (Matthew Soto) being a real standout in this regard. This is unsurprising considering that director Jeff Wadlow has helmed movies such as Kick-Ass 2 and True Memoirs of an International Assassin. If he had leaned into those comedic chops more, the movie would have made far more tonal sense. The film is fairly watchable, and while it isn’t stylistically brilliant, it is certainly well-made and well-crafted.

Additionally, while the roles were not ideal, there were some good performances in the movie. DeWanda Wise has a great presence on screen and sells her character’s emotional moments well, and Pyper Braun, the young actress playing Alice, is a delight to watch, handling the most difficult role of the film very adeptly. Ultimately, Imaginary is a slightly below-average PG-13 horror film that doesn’t get the heart racing or the blood boiling, but it can at least keep your attention for the duration of the runtime.

Imaginary will be released globally in theaters on March 8, 2024.

Imaginary: Trailer (Lionsgate)
Thank you for reading us! If you’d like to help us continue to bring you our coverage of films and TV and keep the site completely free for everyone, please consider a donation.