In the Realms of the Unreal (documentary)

“In the Realms of the Unreal” is the name of the 15,000-page children’s fantasy novel written by Chicago janitor Henry Darger, who left it among his things when he died in 1973 at the age of 81. The title is borrowed for Jessica Yu’s uncommonly interesting and lovely documentary about Darger and his work.

Darger himself seemed to dwell in an unreal realm, as documented in the other major written work he left behind, his life story. He had a Dickensian childhood, more or less orphaned, sent to a home for “feeble-minded children” (which he doesn’t appear to have been) and made to do menial labor on work farms. As an adult, he was reclusive and a devout Catholic. He wanted to be left alone. He never married. The hundreds of paintings he did to accompany his book suggest he had a limited knowledge of the opposite sex: The children are often painted naked, and the little girls have penises.

Coming from other minds, this would be creepy and unsettling. But Yu’s interviews with the people who dealt with Darger — his landlords, his neighbors, and so forth — reveal a man universally considered innocent and child-like. He was naive, maybe a little feeble-minded after all, and had no prurient interests of any kind, at least not of which he left behind any evidence.

Was he crazy? Probably at least slightly. For 10 years, he kept a detailed journal of the weather, comparing it with the forecasts. He seemed angry that the meteorologists got it wrong so often. This is not the behavior of a non-crazy person.

What makes the film so fascinating is its dual stories: one, of Darger himself, and two, of his “In the Realms of the Unreal” novel. His colorful paintings are animated a bit to give them life and whimsy, and the story itself is a simple, charming piece about a band of seven little girls who lead a fight against an evil warlike nation.

It parallels his real life, too, which gives it poignancy. Did Darger miss his own lost childhood and write this story as a means of recapturing it? It would appear so, though Yu takes the interesting tack of NOT interviewing any psychologists or experts. This is refreshing, as it allows Darger and his work to remain pure, untainted by analysis or dissection. (This is a man who wrote thousands of pages with no intention of anyone ever reading them, much less having them put under a microscope.) He was child-like, his writing was unpolished and quaint, and both are preserved in this gratifying, poignant documentary.

A- (1 hr., 21 min.; Not Rated, probably PG for some very mild profanity.)