NOTE: An official selection of the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival
There will always be some films in recorded history that to describe them or put them into words would do them a mild disservice. Particularly if the film in question is an insane feast to target the eyes as well as a steak to the stomach. And more finitely, if that film plays out like a staunch fever dream whose style comes off as familiar on one end, and impossible to replicate on the other. Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney (Sylvio) have proven their genius in experimental cinema, attempting a greater challenge in making a near-nightmare out of the mundane and the commercialist. For the two of them, Strawberry Mansion could be considered their magnum opus, refining their unique level of both substance and style in a subconscious stew mirroring the works of Lynch, Jodorowsky, Buñuel, and a smidgeon of Rankin/Bass.
And all of that begins with something so trivial by fantasy or sci-fi standards: what exactly are we seeing in our dreams? What if they were monetized? Audley is a man on a mission, stepping in front of the camera to assume the role of James Preble, one in a lineage of “dream auditors”. Their job is to affirm conformity in a realm mild enough to harbor waking dreams. Preble finds himself on one fateful day at the home of eccentric painter Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), to take stock and collect overdue “dream taxes”.
One big red flag with Bella, considering her age and being behind the curve on technology: a vast archive of VHS tapes containing past memories. In Preble’s era, such antiquated media has been outlawed. But he’s no less intrigued by the innate charm of these tapes, and what they hold. Within them, a recorded account of past dreams, encapsulating Bella’s younger self, who Preble sees as a welcome distraction. But the deeper he dives, the scarier the dreams turn, provoking a hive of villainy, in-dream advertising, and furry cosplay, among other benchmarks of the unexpected.
Jimmy Stewart he might not be, but Audley is just as eager to take command of the screen, old school business suit with matching hat and all. Strolling about with vintage clothes in a landscape not unlike suburban Americana circa early 2000s, Preble is a figure transcendent, standing out in a world out to consume him for his mere sense of distinction. Of course, he’s far from a perfect individual. Peering into his dreams equals a journey to an endless void. Manifested as a quiet pink room, while those aforementioned advertisements synthesize out of nowhere. How else can these dreams stay profitable? Interjecting with product placement is obtrusive, yes, but clever as well.
And cleverness is a watch word both Audley and Birney carry with pride. A very small indie budget is no stumble block for this pair, as they navigate through premonitions of sailing ships run by giant mice, frogs as diner waiters, a mild furry subtext with Bella’s son Peter (Reed Birney), talking flies, talking food, fried chicken, and amorphous blobs made of grass and magnetic tape. There is simply no limit to the level of creative detail in play, growing a supernatural template out of core concepts, and lending from different art forms. Even going as far as capturing everything on DIY-style 16mm, utilizing stop motion and models to represent Bella’s kitschy dollhouse motif. DoP Tyler Davis keeps every corner of the image palette well in line, without all too many swings or shifts out of shape.
To go into further detail would pose a risky dive into spoiler territory, as there is just so much Audley and Birney stuff in, like it were an all too fleeting buffet with the meager goal of embracing the atypical, the exotic, and the abnormal, without it serving cause to overwhelm. Audley’s average joe businessman character is bridged into a crossroads of identity while travelling about this dreamscape with no clear direction by which to escape. Forging a romance with a younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) slows him down immensely, but still does plenty to push him out of his zone, broadening his personality against a rather dense tightrope where clues bubble like fancy soap. When it’s not the increasingly heightened aesthetic strengths that would pull me in, it’s the nutty character arc in Preble’s sense of self that’s existing to match with that vivid subconscious.
Polished off by composer Dan Deacon’s synth-heavy nods to Tangerine Dream, there will be much difficulty to resist being spellbound by the whimsy and ingenuity of Strawberry Mansion. Hooking you in like a gentle acid trip, but grounding you down like a mad endorphin rush, its archaic pitter-patter immortalizes what midnight movies are made of. Style, with substance, doubled down by a simplistic plot to rattle the nerves, and ending on a blissful high. May that turn into a welcome trend for the newest generation of indie filmmakers. Venture off, away from normal, aiming for the unknown. This film did that, and then some. (A-; 3.5/5 Horns Up!)
Strawberry Mansion opens in theatrical release (including Seattle’s Grand Illusion) February 18, digital release to follow February 25; film not rated, though its subject matter would best fit a PG-13; 91 minutes.