IN THE REALMS OF THE UNREAL written and directed by Jessica Yu, produced by Yu, Susan West and Karen Carter, narrated by Dakota Fanning. 81 minutes. A Mongrel Media release. Opens Friday (January 28). For venues and times, see Movie listings. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
On blood-drenched battlefields, rifle-toting little girls go to war with soldiers in mortarboards, led by a janitor from Chicago.
That janitor, Henry Darger , lived a solitary outward existence, but his inner life was full of colour and magic, taking shape in a 15,000-page novel called The Story Of The Vivian Girls, In What Is Known As The Realms Of The Unreal .
As Oscar-winning director Jessica Yu 's beautifully strange documentary reveals, the book and the paintings that accompanied it were discovered by his landlords shortly before his death.
In it, golden-haired girls struggle against evil slave-owners. Children are gutted and left to bleed. Angels with rainbow wings soar overhead. The novel is excruciatingly detailed, the paintings haunting, vibrant and kinetic.
Raised first in a mission school and then in a home for "feeble-minded children," Darger lived his entire adult life alone, keeping detailed journals that show how his "real" life melded into the world he shaped. Child actor Dakota Fanning narrates the film, taking pride of place, as the children in Darger's book do.
His fascination with little girls and his eventual desire to adopt one might seem creepy, but they're not. He was a protector, not a predator, who knew from experience how cruel the world could be to children. Ultimately, his imaginary world was a substitute for the real relationships he never had.
As his landlady says, "I think he wanted something to share his love with."