In the world of the artsy new sci-fi film Strawberry Mansion, society has developed the technology to record dreams. And in typical over-the-top Silicon Valley fashion, if someone can track people’s thoughts and actions, they’ll definitely try to monetize it. The government now has a team of auditors that reviews these dreams and applies a small tax on certain goods that appear. Dreaming about a hot air balloon? That’ll be $0.52. Have thoughts of maple trees dancing through your head? A modest $0.08, please.
James Preble (played by co-writer/co-director Kentucker Audley) works as a dream auditor. And he’s been assigned to audit the dream inventory of an older woman named Bella (Penny Fuller). Unfortunately, Bella hasn’t kept up with technology very well, and all her dreams have been stored on old VHS tapes instead of the more modern (and USB-like) dreamstick technology. So this audit will take a bit longer than usual. Accordingly, Preble ends up staying with Bella for a few days in the spare room of her giant, countryside house.
While Preble stays with Bella, however, he starts to take up some kind of relationship with the young Bella (Grace Glowicki) he meets in her dreams. And the longer he stays with present-day Bella, the more he begins to learn there may be more to this dream inventory technology than he originally believed. “Do you believe your dreams are your own?” she asks one day over ominous afternoon tea.
Sounds like a great premise for a sci-fi flick, right? A dash of Inception mixed with a pinch of 1984 alongside some romance and the dry comic sensibility of I Heart Huckabees. Writer/directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley (who partnered on the 2017 SXSW film, Sylvio) absolutely have some great ideas, from the overall premise to the evil lurking in the movie’s second half and what that evil says about modern society (hint: it’s damning satire). Strawberry Mansion also has an extreme level of craft put into it. You’ll want to immediately queue up the Dan Deacon-penned score on Spotify. The absurdist visual ideas within the dream sequences are often delightful. And all throughout, there’s hazy lensing that visually mimics beloved genre B-movies of yore (Birney evidently shot the film digitally before transferring it to 16mm film). It’s a sensual feast of a film… but whether it works for a given viewer likely depends on their tolerance for arthouse sensibilities.
While it’s never dull to look at, Strawberry Mansion often has a glacial pace. It takes nearly the first third of the film to get a grasp on the basic plot as described above. The middle act picks up, like a tense thriller is about to unfold post-reveal. But then the final stretch reverts to the more luxurious, museum-gazing pacing complete with some really over-the-top dreams. There were moments when I couldn’t determine whether Preble was alive or dead or somewhere in between… but either way, he definitely sails across the seas as a 19th-century naval captain to find his lost “love.” She is, of course, the younger dream version of an old woman he had to audit. And he has two anthropomorphic rats as his crew.
Strawberry Mansion can be a lot.
The main performances are all engaging, regardless. Audley is restrained as Preble, and his auditor is often just as bewildered as the audience. Fuller as Bella may not be up with the latest technology, but she clearly has a lot of wisdom about modern life and morsels it out coyly. And veteran character actor Reed Birney (Vice President Blythe in middle seasons of House of Cards) is ideally cast as a perfectly unlikable try-hard from Bella’s past who shows up to complicate matters.
I may have muttered WTF to myself several times throughout Strawberry Mansion, yet I have thought about the film more after the fact than I would have imagined. Still, would I recommend it to others? First, I’d ask if you’ve ever been to a place like the R Bar in New Orleans. It’s that particular kind of hip, dimly lit but unpretentious pub that keeps a TV above the bar, usually on silent. Such a set functions essentially as kinetic wallpaper to whatever adventure lies ahead of you, so these bar TVs usually play trippy, retro fantasy films of the ’70s and ’80s. Limited resources and a lack of digital VFX meant some ridiculous puppets, backdrops, or costumes made it to screen. Hokey in the moment; charmingly retro and interesting now.
Strawberry Mansion can and should totally screen in this setting someday. And when it does, some patrons will get caught up by the eyeful and lean in, wanting to know more and allowing themselves to get lost in this fantastical world for ~90 minutes. Everyone else? They’ll turn to the person next to them, mutter WTF, chuckle, then move on.
Strawberry Mansion debuted at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is currently available on VOD as part of the 2021 hybrid edition of the great genre event, Fantasia Fest. As of this summer, distributor Music Box Films reportedly had plans for a theatrical and digital release later this year, but no release date has been announced.