Sundance 2021 ‘Strawberry Mansion’ Review: A Fantastical Anti-Consumerist Fever Dream

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

In Strawberry Mansion, dreams are hot pink kitchens with fried chicken. Dreams are skeletons rising from their graves to the sound of a violin. Dreams are desert islands with the one you love. Dreams are a coil of film unravelling inside a VHS tape. The dreamworld and ethereal reality that writer/directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney create in their endlessly inventive and colorful romantic fantasy is as uncannily unsettling as it is charmingly optimistic. It’s quirkiness dialed up to the maximum, but it works. 

This hallucinatory fantasy takes place in some near-future, where dream auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley) is employed by the government to tax people for the contents of their dreams. Arabella “Bella” Isadora (Penny Fuller) is an eccentric woman living in an isolated farmhouse, who has not paid in years, and has a treasure trove of now-obsolete VHS tapes of her dreams containing thousands of hours of her imaginings. Preble beams himself into her dreams, assessing the value of different objects in her dreamscape so she can pay accordingly. 

Preble is a suited, mustached, and rule-following agent of the bureaucracy, while Bella is a free spirit, who writes stories, paints pictures, composes songs, and works with gadgets — thinking of herself as an “atmosphere creator.” This strange pair becomes star – and universe – crossed lovers when the dream audit begins, as it soon becomes unclear as to whose dreams Preble is even in when he becomes mesmerized by a spectral younger Bella (Grace Glowicki) and imagines life and love with her. Though this story might be set in some future, it longs for an analog past, as these characters are caught between realms and generations. The world is retro-styled in certain regards, as Preble speaks into a tape recorder despite commenting that Bella’s technology is not up to modern standards. Dan Deacon provides a shimmering electronic music soundtrack to the proceedings, a mesmerizing backdrop to Preble’s adventures scavenging through the video archive.

Audley and Birney’s imaginations seem to know no bounds, as they come up with a wildly zany and world: their visions are filled with everything from insect caught in a spider web that urges Preble to “dream of me” and warns him that he might be killed, to Bigfoot-like creatures made of film strips and VHS-tape innards, to advertisements for household products that pop up within the dreams. There are delightfully quirky details about this world, like a fast food joint that serves chicken shake, made with real blended chicken. Some moments feel absurd for the sake of it, like a frog waiter who plays the saxophone at a restaurant of Bella’s dreams, or when he recounts transforming into a beet with Bella, or when he goes out on the sea with giant rats and sings sea shanties as they scour the ocean for Bella. But to the filmmakers’ credit, it never quite feels like too much; after all, dreams are supposed to be a little weird, wacky, and nonsensical.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Though the conflict is somewhat intermittent, the main tension lies in how the pure wonder of dreams is colonized by advertisements. Once Preble becomes aware of the ads, the false facades fade away; the advertisements glitch and terrorize him, selling him messages of “pain” and “hell.” It turns out Bella’s estranged son Peter is the CEO of the largest ad agency in the country, which is responsible for placing ads in their dreams, and Preble faces a desperate battle to find paradise with the young  Bella and someone to share dreams with.

The colors are ultra-saturated and the effects a little cheesy, as if we are watching some weird VHS tape that was unearthed from somebody’s parents’ basement. The surreal style and commentary on rampant consumerism has some of the flavors of Adult Swim, yet the creators fashion a bonkers universe all their own with this cult-classic in the making. The second half loses some of its coherence as it throws absolutely everything at us to see what sticks; by the end of it, we’re left with plenty of zany images but none particularly more memorable or resonating than the last. But isn’t that how it is with most of our dreams, where we wake up without a clear recollection of what happened, but only that strange feeling of awakening from something crazy? Strawberry Mansion is just like that — you leave it still not quite sure what all that was, but certain it’s left your brain waves thoroughly scrambled.

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