The nightmarish hallucinations fueling a mother’s descent into madness will likely prove maddening in a different way to audiences watching “Danika,” a jumpy little psychological thriller that plays like a nonstop anxiety-attack. Given a considerable boost by Marisa Tomei’s intensely rattled performance in the title role, pic lays a series of sinister mind traps that ultimately make sense within the feverish narrative context, though the payoff isn’t satisfying enough to build the kind of enthusiastic word of mouth needed to provoke more than a modest commercial showing.
Thirty-five-year-old Danika Merrick (Tomei) is a stressed-out wife and mother with a strenuously overactive imagination. After hallucinating an armed robbery at the bank where she works, Danika decides to quit work for a while and spend more time with her husband Randy (Craig Bierko) and children Kurt (Kyle Gallner), Lauren (Nicki Prian) and Brian (Ridge Canipe).
She also signs up for sessions with a therapist (Regina Hall) whose relative youthfulness — she’s only 28 — is one of several clues hinting at something slightly amiss with this layer of reality. There’s also Randy’s odd habit of looking unapologetically, well, randy whenever another attractive woman slinks by, as well as disturbing crime reports — a young girl’s kidnapping and murder, a terrorist attack on a school bus — that pop up on the news.
Distressed to the point of panic by these violent attacks on children, Danika begins to exert an unhealthy degree of control over her own brood, even developing an excessively prurient interest in Kurt’s and Lauren’s blooming sexuality. Tale has some interesting points of contact with the sexual hysteria and repressive paranoia of Henry James’ gothic ghost story “The Turn of the Screw,” although this time, it’s the mother, not the nanny, who may be losing her mind.
Yet if Danika is slowly going nuts, she also has a clear talent for premonition, as some of her more gruesome imaginings begin to come true. It’s here that Joshua Leibner’s screenplay begins its descent into horror-movie cliche, as helmer Ariel Vromen, keeping a twitchy hand on the volume knob, milks every scene for maximum shock-cut effectiveness.
Result is a succession of creepy moments that never become gripping or unnerving beyond a superficial “gotcha!” level. Meanwhile, the increasingly Mobius strip-like structure — with practically every scene spinning off into some fresh delusion or dream sequence — soon devolves into free-form narrative chaos that sustains attention yet never allows suspense to build.
Explosive finale pulls most loose threads together, though the revelations about Danika’s shattered psyche will rightly leave some viewers feeling jerked around.
In a role that could easily have become tiresome (and, as it is, comes perilously close), Tomei is disarmingly credible and sympathetic, wisely modulating her performance between self-deceiving optimism and full-blown delirium. Bierko brings just the right touch of smarminess to his role as the trusty but almost too good-looking-to-be-true dad.
Moving from the “Scary Movie” spoofs to ostensibly more frightening territory, Hall is blander and more tamped-down here than she was in that franchise (whose most recent installment, amusingly, co-starred Bierko). Tyke thesps are pro.
Darko Suvac’s lensing, making nimble use of both a handheld camera and the widescreen format, looked washed out and overexposed at the CineVegas premiere. Clocking in at just under 80 minutes (including closing credits, which were barely finished in time for the preem), “Danika” is, at the very least, a nightmare that doesn’t overstay its welcome.