“I just wanted someone to share my dreams with.”
That statement carries a different weight in a future where our dreams aren’t really our own. It is said by Bella (Penny Fuller) to James Preble (Kentucker Audley), the auditor sent to the elderly woman’s home to assess her dreams for unpaid taxes. The year is 2035, and individuals’ dreams are injected with product placement. “Strawberry Mansion,” the surreal sci-fi fantasy movie written and directed by Audley and Albert Birney, opens inside one of Preble’s dreams. He sits alone in a kitchen, where every surface and every item contained therein is the same fetching yet queasy shade of pink. But there’s a distressing air of fakeness to the whole scene. Preble tries to pry open what looks like a pill bottle to no avail, and when he attempts to fill a cup with water, nothing comes out of the faucet. So when a man he addresses as Buddy (Linus Phillips) bursts into the room in a cloud of smoke, one arm cradling a bucket of Cap’n Kelly Chicken, the other a liter of Red Rocket soda, Preble looks on him like a savior. It’s little surprise then that after this dream, back in the real world, Preble finds himself in the Cap’n Kelly drive-thru, ordering their new chicken shake.
These opening scenes do a thorough job establishing the world “Strawberry Mansion” takes place in, as well as the film’s unique visual aesthetic, which walks a line between the candy-coated colors of Wes Anderson and the delirium of David Lynch. So when Preble reaches the home of Bella, the subject of his next audit, we immediately know that something a little different is going on. Bella wears an odd contraption on her head, a helmet of many different colored lights that looks like a prop cobbled together for an old sci-fi B movie, and she seems more in tune with herself than most of the other people do. Her use of old tech, from her headgear to VHS tapes, allows Bella to circumvent the monetization of her dreamscape, and when Preble enters her dreams to audit them, he soon finds himself falling for the vision of Bella’s younger self (played by Grace Glowicki).
“Strawberry Mansion” is a deeply strange trip that Birney and Audley have peppered with a plethora of visual effects, from animation to charmingly clunky character masks. There are all manner of strange sights to be seen in “Strawberry Mansion,” from Preble’s anthropomorphic mice shipmates to frog waiters to Bella’s attraction to a being seemingly made of grass. This future feels almost like a place outside of time; Preble dresses like a 40s noir protagonist, while the aesthetic of some of the sets look like they’re from the 80s, and characters like Buddy who are pushing products come off as more contemporary. And while Audley and Birney shot the movie digitally, they performed a 16 mm transfer after the fact that gives the film an older, more textured appearance. The hallucinatory visuals are appropriate for a story that largely takes place in a dream state, but it’s the heartfelt relationship at its core that makes this film more than just an oddity. There’s something profoundly romantic about Preble’s pursuit of a Bella who no longer exists in reality in her dreams, and there’s a bittersweetness to his interactions with the elderly Bella in the real world. Audley turns his taxman into a sort of noble figure, Glowicki is charming, and Broadway veteran Fuller has a twinkle in her eye and a spark in her voice that always lets us know that Bella is not just an eccentric old woman.
There’s a layer of commentary to “Strawberry Mansion” as well, as the filmmakers envision a future where overconsumption and marketing have become so invasive even our dreams turn in to capitalist nightmares. This comes through most strongly in the film’s main conflict, which involves Bellas’s self-centered adult son Peter (Reed Birney) and his family attempting to disrupt Preble’s audit. Some of this messaging gets muddled in the surrealism, but through it all, the sweetness of the central relationship rings loud and clear.
“Strawberry Mansion” opens in select theaters on February 18 and will be available to watch on demand starting February 25. Runtime: 90 minutes.
Media review screener courtesy Music Box Films.