From directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, Strawberry Mansion is an illusory vignette of a dystopian future where dreams can be archived, infiltrated, and taxed. James Preble (Kentucker Audley) is a government agent who arrives at the home of the aging Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) in order to perform an audit of her dreams. Fluctuating between dreams and reality, James is lead on a journey through her lifetime of dreams before coming to some stunning conclusions.
Although the setting of Strawberry Mansion is distinctly science fiction, there’s a pastoral and absurdist quality to the film. James Preble does indeed live in the future, but everything about the film’s aesthetic looks timeless outside of his dreamscape. The Arabella of her dreams (Grace Glowicki) is young and beautiful, the world she lives in has a mythic and fantastical quality. The only time we are really reminded of modernity is when Preble accounts his own dreams and we are treated with what we might expect dreams to be if they were able to be taxed.
Instead of the fanciful and exciting dreams that Arabella has, his dreams have become infested with advertisements. These advertisements then feed into the influence of where he eats and what he buys. A creepy and overly-friendly menace only known as Buddy (Linas Phillips) bombards his dreams with ads of fried chicken. It is only when he escapes to Arabella’s house that he discovers that dreams can be something else.
The plot takes winding turns, often forecasted throughout the film in subtle ways, but it doesn’t hesitate to stop and smell the roses. Strawberry Mansion is half a story and half a piece of art. Every scene is deliberate and the world feels like it’s being viewed through rose-colored glasses, even when the plot doesn’t support it. With wild and absurd characters and an overly adorned set, the film seems to draw influence from Wes Anderson or even a cheery Tim Burton.
In the end, the excitement of Strawberry Mansion is in the dream world and in the dystopia it sets up. Does it deliver in the end? Not fully. The impact of the ending doesn’t heighten the strength of the beginning and middle. It feels like it’s on the steps of greatness but it falters at the finish line. Still, the performances are convincing, with Kentucker Audley looking perfectly gloomy. Even if the story is not firing on all cylinders, it inspires a new idea and commentates on our current technology-obsessed culture.
This film review was based on the premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2021. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution. Photo by Tyler Davis | Courtesy of Sundance Institute.