Henry Darger was the kind of urban eccentric inevitably described by neighbors as "living in his own little world," but Darger's case put truth to that cliché. When he died in 1973, Darger left a Chicago apartment filled with old children's books and stacks of artwork and journals; when his neighbors started sorting through it all, they discovered that this shy, short nobody—a hospital janitor for most of his 81 years—had penned a 5,000-page autobiography, as well as a 15,000-page fantasy novel about a revolution led by two preteen sisters whose cruel upbringing resembled Darger's. All of this work was accompanied by vivid illustrations, using astonishing self-taught reproduction techniques that took images from comic strips and catalogs and rearranged them into surreal battle tableaux, populated by naked little girls with tiny penises.
Darger's drawings and writings have toured museums ever since, anchoring the "outsider art" movement of recent decades, but Jessica Yu's documentary In The Realms Of The Unreal (named for Darger's fantasy epic) scarcely considers its subject's posthumous fame. Yu—who won an Academy Award in 1997 for her documentary short Breathing Lessons: The Life And Work Of Mark O'Brien—is after a more immersive experience. She makes sparing use of talking heads, instead relying on voiceover comments from Darger's surviving neighbors and from a pair of narrators. Dakota Fanning reads from Darger's novel and adds some facts about his life, while Larry Pine reads from the autobiography, which quickly becomes inextricable from the fantasy. Yu illustrates their words with slow pans across Darger's nostalgia collection, stock footage of Chicago throughout the 20th century, and limited animation of Darger's illustrations.
The mixed-media approach at times resembles Guy Maddin's brand of ironic homage, though Yu's not really interested in being funny. She's aiming to get inside the head of a man who was quiet all day at work, and then talked to himself at night in such a loud and varied voice that his neighbors thought he had company. In The Realms Of The Unreal seeks to unlock the connection between the depressing life of a lonely blue-collar worker and the insanely elaborate revenge fantasy he worked on at home for decades. And in the end, it all gets to be too stifling. The film looks amazing, and there may be no better way to adapt Darger's work to the screen. But Yu's decision to limit the comments on Darger's enduring appeal keeps the audience locked in his cramped room too long, without a window of context.