For most of his life Henry Darger worked in a succession of lowly jobs, including janitor, and made very little contact with anybody, only counting one real friend for whole the whole of his 81 years. Born in 1892, his mother died giving birth to him and his father wasn't able to look after him, so Henry wound up in various schools where he was not a popular student, nor did he distinguish himself academically. Eventually he was taken to a school for the "feeble minded", which he tried to run away from; his childhood was not a happy one. But somehow these experiences fed into his vivid imagination, and he began to write and paint, creating incredible artwork that nobody knew about save Henry...
Writer and director Jessica Yu took a dreamlike approach to her subject, immersing the viewer in the world of Henry's mind yet still leaving him as much as a mystery as he was at the start of the film. We may understand a little more about him, but the motives and meanings behind his life's work remain deeply alien. Yu brings him to life by animating a substantial fraction of his many paintings and having extracts from both his autobiography and fifteen thousand page novel read by voiceover actors, including a then seven-year-old Dakota Fanning. In addition, there are talking heads of those who knew him, although "encountered" would be a more accurate term as there doesn't seem to be anyone who genuinely knew Henry.
Yu is apparently enchanted by Darger's work to the extent that she doesn't realise how unsettling a lot of it is. His huge novel concerns a war between child slavemasters and those who would seek to free the children. The most important of the children are seven little girls called the Vivians, who are imparted with an almost magical significance, but the pages are packed with similar little girls who are the centre of the conflict, even being tortured by the evil slavemasters who capture them. There's no sexual element to this romanticising of his heroines, indeed Henry comes across as weirdly innocent of just how odd all this is, but some of the paintings depict the girls naked and sometimes with male genitalia.
There are a few theories as to why Darger picked this landscape to illustrate, but nobody mentions the most obvious interpretation, that he strongly identified with the girls from his own childhood traumas and he was working these out in his artwork. In fact, there are no experts on hand to discuss Darger, merely those who met him such as his neighbours or landlady who offer ancedotes about overhearing Henry chatting away to himself behind the closed door of his apartment, or avoiding any meaningful conversation when pushed by talking about the weather. He simply preferred to be on his own, and as long as no one bothered him he was happy, and never happier than when he was lost in his own world. What Yu's documentary lacks is a concept of how influential the man's work has been since its discovery to put it into context, but then enigma was Darger's stock in trade. Music by Jeff Beal.