Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Music Box Films releases the film in theaters on Friday, February 18.
There have been countless movies about dreams, but “Strawberry Mansion” is the only one save for “Inception” that turns them into a hustle. In this visually entrancing and innovative fantasy from co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, the government forces citizens to record their nighttime journeys and imposes taxes on the unpredictable ingredients found within. Audley and Birney, who previously made the lo-fi comic odyssey “Sylvio” about a lonely gorilla with an online talk show, excel at grounding outlandish concepts in genuine emotional stakes.
“Sylvio” was just strange and charming enough to show the potential of a silly-poignant balance unique to their combined talent; “Strawberry Mansion” gets there, with a delightful and innovative oddball journey that overcomes its zany twists by taking them seriously. It doesn’t always work, but there’s so much fun in watching the gears turn that it hardly matters.
Shot on video and transferred to 16mm, “Strawberry Mansion” looks like some kind of lost ‘80s vision buried in the dustbin of the rental store. The filmmakers blend their scrappy, intimate aesthetic with handmade special effects on par with the loose, stream-of-consciousness flow of the dreams at the center of the story, resulting in a playful, bittersweet blend that suggests Terry Gilliam on a microbudget.
From its first moments, the filmmakers jump straight into a bizarre near-future setting, where “dream auditor” James Preble (a bedraggled Audley) contends with some disturbing dreams of his own. Imagining himself trapped in a claustrophobic room baked in pink, he’s force-fed advertisements by a leering stranger (Linas Phillips) before waking up into an even more alienating reality.
James drifts through a vibrant world at odds with its hints of dystopia, from a robotic fast food restaurant serving “chicken shakes” to the clunky metallic headset he uses to view his targets’ dreams. His latest target sends him driving across the countryside to explore the dreams of affable elderly woman Bella, played by veteran Broadway actress Penny Fuller as a kindly presence whose gentle smile obscures a universe of secrets within her brain. Bella lives in a striking pink castle surrounding verdant scenery that, even by the standards of this far-flung backdrop, looks untethered from the world around it.
Settling into his work, James begins to sample them in piecemeal, donning the headset and roaming around her dreamscapes as a puzzled hologram to jot down the taxable items on display. His routine unfolds as a wondrous combination of capitalist satire and storybook conceit, as he watches a younger Bella (Grace Glowski, who memorably directed and starred in the similarly outré character study “Tito”) roaming through half-formed memories and strange characters while noting their cost. Just as James takes in the countryside of Bella’s youth (where he dutifully notes the 50 percent tax on a buffalo) and a bizarre date night that involves a giant frog waiter who plays the saxophone — yes, it’s a lot — he begins to realize that something’s off even by the standards in play: Some of the details are hazy, obscured by TV static, the result of some conspiratorial threat that Bella has managed to keep out of her dreams.
Explaining more about that side of the plot would ruin its wry commentary on the invasion of consumerism into every facet of daily life. Needless to say, the mild-mannered James suddenly finds himself at the center of dark forces beyond his control, and deeply concerned for Bella’s needs. When the woman suddenly drops out of the picture, her scheming adult son (Reed Birney) shows up to take charge of the situation, attempting to stop James from completing his work. That showdown turns up the surrealist volume as it plunges deeper into dreamland: James imagines himself trapped at sea, contending with rat sailors and a giant blue demon before transforming himself into a caterpillar, all in service of an unexpected quest to save Bella’s dreams from oblivion.
The premise of “Strawberry Mansion” is both too clever by half and somewhat half-baked: Its dream vistas offer profound, inspired concepts that soar above a rather lightweight plot about star-crossed lovers in an unknown realm. Accept that simplicity and the movie is in fact a delicate wonder, with one of the most innovative depictions of dream logic since Michel Gondry’s “The Science of Sleep.” With Dan Deacon’s cosmic synth carrying the strange twists along, “Strawberry Mansion” works its way through an absurdist romance with palpable depth.
Even as it zigs and zags through several capricious twists, the movie feels grounded in a genuine desire for connection, as it was conceived in that foggy state between sleep and the waking world familiar to us all. Audley centralizes the movie around his constant uncertainty about the strange events around him. For over a decade, he’s been a reliable deadpan performer in low budget American cinema, from “Sun Don’t Shine” to “Christmas, Again,” who manages to combine passive-aggressiveness with pathos to spare. Here, he’s almost Buster Keaton-like in his fragile, confused state that follows him through multiple realms.
If “Strawberry Mansion” never fully shakes the impression of a half-formed idea, that itself reflects the unconscious state where it spends most of its 90 spellbinding minutes. The filmmakers do a lot with little and don’t try to hide it, providing a welcome contrast to the idea that effects-driven storytelling exclusively belongs within the costly realm of Hollywood spectacles. The movie’s ethereal strengths are baked into the concept, but they also enhance the finale, as the two worlds finally converge and James struggles to sort them out. Its closing moments suggest that dreams can be a dangerous distraction from waking life, but also the perfect escape from its harsher truths.
“Strawberry Mansion” premiered in the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.