“Strawberry Mansion is a perfect showcase of fantastical relatability that soars beyond raw creativity and becomes just as timely as it is insane.”
English poet John Dryden once wrote, “Dreams are but interludes which Fancy makes”; they are an inversion of reality conjured by the mind that make sense only to those who bear them. These fleeting vignettes of banality exist as an escape from life’s more rigorous routines, especially at a time such as now, when being awake proves itself less and less appealing (the monotony of quarantine life making a constant case in favor of abstract imagination). Which is why Strawberry Mansion, the sophomore feature collaboration by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, is the perfect showcase of fantastical relatability that soars beyond its raw creativity and becomes just as timely as it is insane.Strawberry Mansion follows mild-mannered government worker James Preble (Audley), who is tasked with the job of recording and taxing the dreams of one Arabella (Penny Fuller), an elderly woman that’s left her dreams unrecorded for years. As he becomes more invested in her dreams (and thea younger, more mysterious version of Arabella within them), the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur with maniacal implications.
Strawberry Mansion follows mild-mannered government worker James Preble (Audley), who is tasked with recording and taxing the dreams of one Arabella (Penny Fuller), an elderly woman that’s left her dreams unrecorded for years. As he becomes more invested in her dreams (and the younger, more mysterious version of Arabella within them), the lines between reality and fantasy begin to blur with maniacal implications. To reveal any more would be doing a disservice, but it’s an oddly simplistic plot for a movie chock full with bizarre characters and structure, which makes it all the more disturbing when it finally settles into itself and reveals its deeper, more sinister through-line (though you can expect no less from the twisted duo that brought Sylvio in 2017 – an absurdist comedy centering an anthropomorphic, puppet-loving gorilla).
Birney and Audley write and direct with the vivacious imagination of nine-year-old boys who turn their childhood background into an entirely idiosyncratic universe, complete with jazz-crooning frogs and a turtle named Sugarbaby. They don’t hold back their ambitious insanities, but they also simultaneously possess a brilliant restraint in how they never allow the farcicality to overpower their grander themes. The whimsy of Strawberry Mansion eventually gives way to a tenderly affecting story of human connection and the capitalist milieu that threatens it. But it’s commentary never becomes overbearing; Strawberry Mansion revolves around the transcendent romance at its core, unbound by the logic of time or reality. Audley and Birney (and Audley’s portrayal of James Preble) evoke a deep-seated nostalgia for lost love and a brooding melancholia that even its Tumblr-made aesthetic cannot hide.
Tying Strawberry Mansion together is Audley in the role of James Preble, meandering through the film with a rueful, almost-bored kinesics of someone who’s stuck in a life of utter banality, until he finds a semblance of purpose in the imagination of someone else. On discovering the plausible conspiracy that the government had been buying and placing ads in the dreams of people (thereby enslaving them to needless consumerist cravings), Audley’s performance kicks into high gear as Preble’s knowledge of said conspiracy threatens his inter-oneiric romance. The light-hued grainy cinematography by Tyler Davis (shot on digital but altered to look like 16mm film), captures the raw taste for adventure that Audley wears throughout the film, but is never reserved when those sensibilities lead to more mysterious and dark terrain.
That the burgeoning nonsensicality of Strawberry Mansion continues to pay off even until the credits roll is a testament to Birney and Audley’s wildly vivid, yet paradoxically inartificial penmanship. Though they’re aided by the rest of the cast (rounded out by the marvelously charming Grace Glowicki as a younger Arabella, and the comically insidious Reed Birney as Arabella’s son) who come through with performances that never feel overly exaggerated. Like the best of Strawberry Mansion, they ground their performances in the humanistic truths of good and evil, though aligning with a postmodernist view of how varied our reactions to that binary can be. Further bolstered by a magnetic, synth-bursting score by electronic artist Dan Deacon, and quaint production design by Becca Brooks Morrin, this magnanimous acid-trip is the kind of singularity that makes indie film refreshing.
Even in its less cohesive moments (the plot at times closing in on itself in ways it cannot untangle), Strawberry Mansion justifies the trust it implores its viewers to place in its overtly fatuous hijinks. It embraces the beauty that exists in imagination, positing the stirringly optimistic perspective of a world where the value of love and artistic ingenuity remain priceless, even when everything else is for sale. That worldview (which has permeated Birney and Audley’s work before), turns Strawberry Mansion into a defiant response to the oft-commodified nature of mainstream cinema. Birney and Audley beg us to escape on a thrilling adventure into their fancy, but Strawberry Mansion is an astonishing dreamscape odyssey that’ll have you craving for one more minute of sleep, just to revel in its hallucinatory quirkiness – being awake is overrated anyway.
Dir: Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley
Wri: Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley
Prod: Sarah Winshall, Taylor Shung, Emma Hannaway, Matisse Rifai
Cast: Kentucker Audley, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney