“Inquisitive and silly, exploring its fantastical realm with real insight and, what with its chaotic aesthetic, a surprising sense of command.”
by Ken Bakely
Considering all that happens in it, you learn what you need to know about the world of Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley’s Strawberry Mansion surprisingly quickly: there are no great complexities to its setup, and no twists which force us to rethink everything. This is not a criticism. Here, it plays like a sign of confidence for a pleasurable, loopy, deliriously engaging experience, with the joys coming from the finer details of its execution. Set in a future in which government auditors are tasked with viewing recordings of people’s dreams so they can itemize and tax their contents, one such bureaucrat named Preble (Audley) has been assigned to a, well, strawberry-colored mansion in the countryside, occupied by Bella (Penny Fuller), an elderly artist who has a backlog of thousands for him to review. That’s the setup: every surreal tangent and twist to follow can be cleanly and evenly traced back to that one sentence. As viewers, we’re strapped into a wild ride where if there’s ever enough free time and calm space to stop and have a look around, we see the navigation has, perhaps surprisingly, taken a methodical and discernable pattern. There’s some truly impressive construction at work here. Birney and Audley take great care to meticulously engineer their film’s wide array of sights and sequences: they’re neatly carved out, snapping together like puzzle pieces, but the experience of watching the movie is so frenetic, wild, and inventive that both its biggest swings and smallest observations mostly coexist in harmony.
How? Even as Preble dives deeper into Bella’s subconscious, falls in love with a younger version of her (Grace Glowicki) therein, and trapses the varied landscapes of dreamland, there’s always something strangely earthly about it. Strawberry Mansion might be planted in absurd ground, but it’s ground nonetheless. From the first scene – in which Preble wanders one of his own dreams in search of food and drink, eventually saved by an unnamed pal (Linas Phillips) who provides him with their favored brands of cola and fast-food chicken – an undercurrent shoots through even the film’s wackiest, flightiest scenes, in which we learn that not only are dreams being captured and microanalyzed for their taxable status, but private companies are secretly inserting advertisements in them as well. The movie always tries to pry a little deeper than you might suspect at first, just watching the slew of strange and discordant images whir past. Indeed, from the occupation of its protagonist to the corporate conspiracy he also plunges into, the film has more than a few observations on personal agency, and its increasingly elusive nature when everything is commodified.
Alas, and perhaps necessarily, the film struggles to consider these deeper and thornier ideas with the same depth of spirit and enthusiasm it grants everything else within its tight, 90-minute runtime. There’s some paradox in how the straightforwardness it needs sometimes collides with its desires to paddle through its other ideas, particularly in the few times in the second act when you can almost see the film turning its gears. Yet in the long run, it doesn’t really hold it back. The film soon rights itself again, and ventures wholeheartedly into its finale, which goes even further into the manic world of dreams, and is all the better for it. That’s where you want it to be.
With that in mind, Strawberry Mansion is often miraculous to simply consider. Tyler Davis shoots the film with wistful, thick palettes, drenched in deep colors and smeared in a vaseline glow, and the actors, led by Audley, Fuller, and Glowicki, with a small but well-qualified supporting cast, are very good at playing the often hyperspecific energy of Birney and Audley’s script – deadpan, but not quite; cards played close to the chest, but sometimes letting more on than the dialogue might suggest. It’s another careful balance. There’s a wistfulness to the whole project that lets it avoid some trap of self-seriousness that could have brought it down. It’s inquisitive and silly, exploring its fantastical realm with real insight and, what with its chaotic aesthetic, a surprising sense of command.