In the Realms of the Unreal

Henry Darger was a Chicago janitor who had no friends or family and barely even spoke to his neighbors, preferring to spend his evenings holed up in his one-bedroom apartment. It wasn't until 1973, as the 81-year-old Darger was dying, when his landlords discovered that he had written a sprawling, 15,000-page novel, complete with hundreds of illustrations – some over 10 feet long – that he had created over the course of six decades.

Since his death, Darger has been celebrated as the ultimate outsider artist: an uneducated hermit who had concocted a fantastical universe for himself, populated primarily by seven angelic little girls (often nude, and bearing penises!) out to save the world from anti-Christian forces led by a character whom Darger had named after an old school bully.

Thirty years later, renowned documentarian Jessica Yu set out to examine Darger's life and work. The results of her efforts are mixed.

Since the artist himself led an unremarkable existence, and since the handful of neighbors who remember him are ordinary folks themselves, the bulk of the drama relies on Darger's own words and images – which, it can be argued, might have been better suited for a book. I think Yu suspects this too, which is why she dedicates much of the film's running time to animated versions of Darger's drawings, as various voiceover artists recite Darger's rambling, half-crazed narrative about an endless battle between the forces of good and evil. Some audience members may find these sequences enthralling. Others, tedious. I became a bit bored with them myself.

I get the feeling that Yu's ambitions were so big, and her project so high-concept, that she wound up packing her film full of these animated segments because ultimately she couldn't find much else to add. The interviewees who knew Darger simply keep repeating that he was a quiet fellow, while quotes from Darger's other secret work – his autobiography – shed light on his life, but not his mind.

Yu does a good job at informing the details of Darger's own anguished novel with his pitiful memories, but I would have appreciated more reflection on the relevance, if any, of his work, or of his status as an outsider artist, or what that even means in today's art scene. But instead of taking a look at the greater scope of the world around him, In the Realms is all Darger, all the time.

Yu has made a trippy, highly sensory documentary, but I still think Darger's work is best experienced when you can just sit down and gaze at his incredible drawings for as long as you'd like – in a book.