In the Realms of the Unreal is a small but precious gem of a documentary
about the most famous outsider artist to have ever lived, Henry Darger, an
apparently lonely yet wildly creative man blessed with a thrilling inner
life. He completed the eponymous fifteen thousand page illustrated novel
when not at work as a hospital janitor in Chicago. Filmmaker Jessica Yu
animates his drawings and uses them to illustrate his diary entries, which
are much more self-critical, wry and insightful than the many patronizing
myths and misconceptions about the man would dictate. The narration of
"Darger" by Larry Pine is mirrored by that of child star Dakota Fanning, and
this dualism of older man and little girl speaks volumes of the film's
fascinating take on Darger's world.

Darger's strange, elaborate opus was the story of the Vivian Girls, a
group of seven saintly, brave and beautiful little girls who lead a revolt
of child slaves against the godless forces of the Glandelinian army. Amid
mythological monsters and warring armies, the girls were often portrayed
naked, with penises, which has stricken Darger with a near-unshakeable
"dirty old man" label, or else as being completely ignorant about sex, which
seems a more likely possibility. However, the immensely brave Yu's animated
girls accompanying Darger's words emphasizes unequivocally his
identification with them (they also seem to be ghosts of his lost little
sister). Yu brings out the haunting parallels between his own experiences of
severe abuse and neglect in the early twentieth century and the often
shocking violence and brutality that faces the cute young princesses in his
fictional universe. What is particularly moving is how he casts himself as
their protector in the story, a position he was not permitted to hold in
real life: he apparently was never seen around "real" children, though he
did attempt to adopt one to no avail. As an orphaned child, Darger himself
claimed that children were looked at as being beneath dignity but that he
felt that adults were the ones "not worthy of the dust beneath [his] feet."
He said later "I wished to be young always." Is it any wonder, then, that
the arch-villain of his story is named Manley? One of many charming, quirky
scenes is an animated re-enactment of the precocious child Darger
obsessively making flatulent noises with his mouth, raising the ire of
classmates. This bright but odd child was soon placed in an institution for
the feeble-minded without proper cause, and spent his entire life hidden
away from social interaction.

In the Realms of the Unreal is one of the most powerful evocations of an
artist's mind achieved not through an Oscar-coveting actor's over-the-top
"tortured artist" hysterics but through a close, quiet, near-fetishistic
detail to the textures of both the world of his imagination and his material
surroundings of antique toys, story books and cartoons, art supplies, and
carefully clipped and saved images of children. Yu manages to both argue for
Darger's artistic merits and value while also refusing to polish him off and
make him fully comprehensible. She cleverly juxtaposes contrasting
truth-claims by the few people who met Darger to emphasize how little was
known about him. For example, one witness testifies to his unwavering habit
of sitting in the front pews at mass, another states he was consistently at
the back, and a third – the altar boy – swears he was always right in the
middle. Through a sincere, respectful and loving evocation of Darger's world
Yu brings the man of which so little is known out of the shadows but not
necessarily into the full light of day.