Strawberry Mansion—writer-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s wildly surreal, charmingly offbeat indie—is part dystopian sci-fi, part storybook fantasy, and part quirky horror, the sort of mishmash movie that calls to mind a dozen different flicks yet somehow feels wholly unique.
Set in a retro-futuristic depiction of 2035, the film imagines a disturbing totality of capitalism: in dreams, anything one imagines of monetary value is taxed upon waking, with the whole enterprise carried out under the watchful eye of the federal government. James Preble (played by an appropriately understated Audley) is a dream auditor who has been tasked with combing through hours of unaccounted-for dream tapes from the aged eccentric Bella (a wonderful Penny Fuller), who has somehow managed to evade the dream tax for years.
What starts as a routine audit at Bella’s rural home soon descends into an increasingly perplexing mystery, as a strange connection between James and Bella begins to emerge. Audley and Birney employ a stilted quaintness to Strawberry Mansion that works to keep everything slightly off-key, with a handcrafted quality permeating the production design. At its most inventive, the film evokes the same uneasy tweeness of Michel Gondry at his most mischievous; a recurring sequence set in a Pepto-Bismol pink room, for instance, is both delightful and grotesque, while the addition of actors donning ultra-realistic animal masks is played for both laughs and screams.
The film lives in the binary of storybook characters––when Bella tells James about her first husband, she calls him an “evil man,” and says that her son, Peter (Reed Birney), took after his father in that regard. When Peter shows up, unexpectedly, to Bella’s house, he refers to his mother as “rather old” and dismisses her as delusional. Audley’s James, looking like a beleaguered noir detective in an ill-fitting suit and fedora, registers everything that comes at him with the same weary indifference.
There’s a charming disjointedness that often feels appropriately surreal, and Strawberry Mansion succeeds as a sincere adult fantasy during its elaborate dream sequences. There are times when the tone of the film seems unintentionally flat though, especially in the deadpan, unaffected performances. And for as expansive a world as Birney and Audley have crafted, the main driver of the plot—James’ discovery that an advertising behemoth is hijacking dreams in order to turn a profit on taxable goods—feels cynically myopic.
Still, it’s easy to get lost in Tyler Davis’ lush cinematography, which, paired with Dan Deacon’s odd but comforting score, makes Strawberry Mansion feel decidedly rich despite the thin plotting. Audley and Birney have conjured up a funhouse of old-school filmmaking, using stop-motion animation, clay models, and practical effects in a sincerely romantic movie that, like our own dreams, manages to resonate in ways beyond any logical sense.
Strawberry Mansion is now in theaters, including Chicago’s Music Box Theatre.
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