Jessica Yu's In the Realms of the Unreal skillfully paints a portrait of a reclusive and mysterious man by embracing his mystery and primarily letting the man, through his work, speak for himself. The man is Henry Darger, whose hard-scrabble existence locked into a tiny Chicago apartment lent itself to increasingly obsessive artistic tasks. Darger's half-drawn collages of appropriated advertising art are ingenious and even stunning in their way, and many admirers have, indeed, posthumously labeled him a genius.
But Darger's work is also the product of what most would call an arrested, confused, disturbed brain, and one wonders what might have been had Darger had the "benefit" of levelling drugs. Perhaps it's not ours to judge Darger's unique perspective on the world around him. His 15,145-page novel manuscript In the Realms of the Unreal found its inspiration in the beloved fantasy books of Darger's youth, like Baum's Oz books, but also Uncle Tom's Cabin and his childhood indoctrination in the harsh mystery of the Catholic Church.
Yu gives us a taste of Darger's childhood, as he described it in his autobiographical scrawlings (The History of My Life). Was he "feeble-minded or crazy?" Sent to an Asylum for Feeble-Brained Children, Darger learned to be ostracized and tormented at an early age. A lone childhood friend gave Darger someone to whom he could cling, if mostly in memory or over long distances, but the adult Darger was a shut-in described unanimously as "in his own little world."
The real world inexorably penetrated Darger's ballooning mauscripts, but always filtered through his internal mania. In the Realms of the Unreal is a Tolkien-esque epic describing a complex war. The war's roots are in child slavery (reflecting Darger's childhood miseries). Darger's devout Catholicism expresses itself in images of Biblical gore. The magnetic pull of young girls—Shirley Temple, the Coppertone girl, and other media images—led the arrested-development artist to make his heroines The Vivian Girls: perky, rosy-cheeked warrior princesses.
Darger's sexual confusion—perhaps fueled by his conflicted Catholic fanaticism—is apparent in his work. The Vivian Girls, and the girls they protect from the child-enslaving Glandilinians (who wear black mortarboards), are often nude, displaying that they have penises. Those who knew Darger described him as child-like, but he was also consumed with a pedophiliac protectiveness of children. The loss of a prized newspaper photo of a kidnapped girl triggers mad obsession in Darger which intrudes on his novel. Repeated attempts to get the Church to sanction his own adoption of a child are met with rejection.
Excepting the narratives and clutter he left behind, little is known of Darger. Only three photos of him are extant, which cycle haunting through the film. Yu also brings some of Darger's collages to life with cut-out animation, which has the desired effect of pulling us into Darger's mindscape. In voice-over, Larry Pine and Dakota Fanning bring Darger's words to life.
Yu interviews a number of people who crossed his narrow path: his neighbors and his fellow church-goers. Making of them aural colleges of according ("You'd have to ask Henry") and disputing descriptions (three consecutive interviewees insist, respectively, that Darger always sat in the first pew, the back rows, and the middle of the church). One acquaintance says of him, "He wasn't crazy in the normal sense of the word....If you're poor, they call you crazy. If you're rich, they call you eccentric."
Yu's strange history recalls the disturbing depths of Crumb, and Darger's pronounced naivete is often as disarming as Crumb's clear-lined art. Darger's life was a war with no clear military goal and (as in his novel) no clear victor. Yu raises the questionable nature of memory and the fragility of sanity, but she also exalts the salvation of human connection in the efforts made by Darger's neighbors to lend him as much support as he would allow. Darger asked of himself, "Am I a real enemy of the cross or just a very sorry saint?" That Darger became a traitor in his own fictional war illuminates the heartbreak of a broken man's universal struggle for the meaning of life.