Jessica Yu’s startling film documenting the life of outsider artist Henry Darger serves as a cogent reminder of the fantastical worlds and stories Joan Didion once said that we as humans create and “have learned, to freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” And so the story follows; Darger, a troubled child floated from “mental problems” to near Catholic zealotry, to menial custodial duties, all through which he maintained nearly no outside contact with the real world. Upon his death, triptych-like fantastical paintings and a 13,000-page novel, “In the Realms of the Unreal,” were found. Yu’s film goes to explore this gussied world of slave princesses, butterflies and “thrillion”-strong Christian armies fighting for noble ideals of liberty and the end of slavery. Where Yu succeeds in the film is her ability to transcend the “talking-head” format plaguing the Ken Burns disciples and creating a visual analogue to Darger’s mind.
Few outside people grace the screen, and Yu’s access to Darger’s massive tome and paintings allow for accurate information and a privileged glance into a book about which few would know or have access. While many will find Darger’s grossly intriguing world leaving many questions that will never be answered, a few annoying pangs emerge that merely tarnish the film but do not ruin it. For some unquestionable reason, Dakota Fanning narrates here and is present for no apparent reason other than her marketability and cutesy voice. In the wake of popular outsider artists in other mediums, namely the songwriter Daniel Johnston and the out-flowing of support for these misunderstood and tortured souls, Yu’s film provides a transporting and almost didactic commentary on the lack of vital creativity and imagination in our mechanistic and rote existences while offering a portrait of the richness one solitary life can provide.
“In the Realms of the Unreal” opens at Landmark E St. Cinema on Friday.