Dreams and reality collide in Strawberry Mansion, an eclectic and imaginative film set in a future where the subconscious is probed by ads and tax auditors.
Set in an aesthetically timeless, pastel-colored near-future, Strawberry Mansion takes us into a world where dreams are commodified and surveilled by an unnamed bureaucracy. A servant of this surreal system, our protagonist James Preble (Kentucker Audley) serves as a “dream auditor,” entering recordings of dreams to itemize taxable objects. If you think that’s a bit absurd that non-physical items inside dreams have to be taxed, wait until you see what else happens in this strange, delirious film.
We first meet Preble inside one of his dreams, sitting at a pink table inside an all-pink kitchen. Dismayed by an empty pink refrigerator, his friend Buddy (Linas Phillips) suddenly appears and brings him a bucket of fried chicken and bottle of soda, cheering him up. When Preble wakes up from his comforting dream, he saves a digital copy of the recording and uploads it to a computer, where the taxable items are recorded. Feeling hungry, he visits Cap’n Kelly—the same fried chicken brand seen in his dream—and orders a meal including the all-new chicken smoothie.
Preble’s latest assignment is to conduct a dream audit for Bella Isadora (Penny Fuller), a charismatic, eccentric woman who records her dreams on VHS tapes instead of the mandatory digital uploads. Since her dreams have not been tracked by the system, Preble needs to audit each of them—over thousands of tapes—to itemize each object that appears inside them. Donning a silver box on his head hooked up to a tape player by a vacuum tube, Preble records the taxable items, from trees to a hot air balloon to a buffalo. When he mentions that he will need to stay at a local hotel for this endless task, Bella urges him to stay at her house and feed him.
As Preble continues his audit, he begins to fall in love with the young, carefree Bella (Grace Glowicki). During one of her dreams inside a restaurant where the waiter is a frog with a deep voice who plays the saxophone, Preble notices that all the customers have been served buckets of fried chicken—identical to the same brand he eats, except the branding has been glitched out. When he returns to the real world, Bella shares a startling secret with him—occurrences from the real world are beginning to bleed into dreams as corporations have been using dreams as a new advertising channel. Confronted with this uncomfortable truth, Preble begins to question the system he serves and is taken on a psychedelic, reality-bending journey through Bella’s dreams to save himself from the nefarious clutches of Bella’s son Peter (Reed Birney).
Written and directed by its leading actor Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, Strawberry Mansion is a bizarre yet absorbing film that holds your curiosity with its unpredictable storytelling as it descends deeper and deeper into its subconscious levels. Its modest budget often shows, but its childlike animations and peculiar production design offer a charming, wholly original aesthetic. While set in a high-tech future where dreams can be recorded and played back, the world of this film is given a retro, mid-twentieth century look in many of the costumes and set design. It’s a curious visual choice, but cleverly reminds us that we’re not in a familiar reality and is a welcome change from the usual bleak dystopian atmosphere we’re already so familiar with. Meanwhile, the film dazzles us with lo-fi glitch and distortion effects that organically emerge onscreen and conjure psychedelic flashes of anomalies in its most technologically surreal moments.
Strawberry Mansion’s screenplay is a bit of a mixed bag, however. The worldbuilding, while unique, often feels confused and especially towards the end, the story almost seems to get lost inside itself, as if unsure of how to operate in its own dream logic. It’s not unreasonable to feel a little lost watching the story progress halfway through, and when the pacing starts to stagger, you get the impression that the film feels like it’s trying to make itself up as it goes along. Similarly, the film brings up some intriguing concepts around the commodification and surveillance of dreams, but those ideas are too underdeveloped to make much of an impact, and by the end they’re left unresolved.
The film succeeds in creating memorable characters, especially with both Bellas, who are graced with two distinct but equally impassioned performances. Preble makes for an interesting protagonist, especially in his character’s growth throughout the film, but Audley’s performance is a bit too restrained at times. The weak link, however, is the villain Peter, who isn’t very developed and Reed Birney’s performance doesn’t add much personality.
Despite some noticeable flaws in its screenplay, Strawberry Mansion’s heart clearly shines through and its artistic vision is as admirable as it is endearing. If not a logically satisfying film, it’s an emotionally rewarding film, full of hope and passion, and its infectious sense of imagination sticks around long after it’s over.
Strawberry Mansion was screened the 47th Seattle International Film Festival on April 8-18, 2021, and was released in select US theaters on February 18, 2022, and on VOD on February 28, 2022. In the UK, the film will be released in select cinemas and on demand on September 16, 2022.