It’s February, and some strange items are floating into theaters—those that are still operating—and filling up streaming schedules in the always-awkward period before the Academy Awards. Some of the odd ducks are not-yet-released latecomers from the holidays, like Cyrano. Then there are the unloved-but-still-serviceable little movies—mostly indies, retreads, doomed sequels and films with built-in marketing questions attached—generally overlooked but with some selling point that makes sense only to programmers and buyers who deal in bulk. Don’t forget the steady flow of horror quickies, insistent and never-ending like that leaky kitchen faucet you’ve always meant to get around to fixing.
All of a sudden, here’s Strawberry Mansion.
As conceived by veteran actor-writer-producer-director Kentucker Audley (Funny Bunny, Her Smell, Holy Land, Saul at Night) and Albert Birney, maker of such low-budget head-scratchers as Sylvio, the 2021 production Strawberry Mansion is a fantasy/sci-fi character study being advertised as a Sundance audience favorite. There’s no recommendation quite so perplexing as being named a Sundance audience favorite. Moviegoers who gravitate to the quirky end of the scale at festivals are apt to enthuse about all manner of Sundance-approved curiosities, some of them watchable but many of them not. Such are the vagaries of motion picture publicity in the realm of social media.
Strawberry Mansion, however, aims to be different. It tells the story of James Preble—played by filmmaker Audley—a government bureaucrat in the year 2035 whose doubts about his job take him over the edge. In this particular setting, every citizen has an electronic console mounted next to their bed, monitoring their dreams and, after the citizen awakes, billing them for the experience. The dreams themselves are absurd commercials for fried chicken and soft drinks, electronically implanted in the citizens’ minds while they sleep. Thus, people’s dreams are a form of involuntary brainwashing in favor of value-less products, but are taxed as a sort of psychological luxury. Preble is a dream-tax auditor who’s tired of his dreams and sick of the system devoted to taxing this form of mind control.
One day Preble drives to a flamboyant Victorian house in the country to investigate the case of its owner, a senior citizen named Bella who is played by longtime TV and stage character actor Penny Fuller. Bella owes back-taxes on her dreams. Worse, she disdains the internet and relies on her collection of outmoded VHS tapes for entertainment. Worse still, her dreams are defiantly her own. Bella offers the awestruck Preble a place to stay for the night, after asking him to lick a magic ice cream cone. Down the rabbit hole he goes, in a whirlwind of hallucinations involving fanciful imaginary creatures, most intriguing of which is Young Bella (Grace Glowicki), a gregarious and charming manifestation of Bella in her youth.
We can’t help looking at the naive Strawberry Mansion on its own terms. Movies and TV shows are full of dystopian visions. But Audley, Birney and company are intent on overcoming the negativity with a sweet hippie grandma and all the talking flies, frog waiters, rat sailors and giant blue demons the screen can hold. The effect is comfy, romantic and gratifyingly illogical. It brings to mind The City of Lost Children, a grandiose 1995 French fantasy from filmmakers Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in which a mad scientist steals the dreams of little children to help him deal with his insomnia.
In their way, Birney and Audley counter the message of O’Brien, the grand inquisitor of George Orwell’s 1984: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever.” Strawberry Mansion instead offers a future in which a government agent who drives a 1961 Corvair falls in love with a woman he sees at two different stages of her life, and chucks the world of force-fed consumer dreams for his own private wonderland. What an alternative.