Sundance 2021 Review: ‘Strawberry Mansion’ is a Wonderfully Weird Surrealist Romp

Audrey Fox reviews Strawberry Mansion, the latest film from Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, featuring a technicolor dreamscape with vague anti-commercialist messaging, which all would have made Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel proud.
User Rating: 7

Sometimes you want a dystopian science fiction fantasy with rich and extensive world-building. Sometimes you just want sailors who are also literal rats and a hero’s journey that involves turning into a caterpillar to traverse the globe. Strawberry Mansion falls firmly in the latter category. A technicolor dreamscape with vague anti-commercialist messaging, it is not only supremely unconcerned with whether or not its surrealist ravings make sense to the audience, but it barely seems to occur to filmmakers Kentucky Audley and Albert Birney that somewhere along the line, viewers may expect some sort of an explanation. Honestly, though? That’s all part of Strawberry Mansion’s charm. Its abstractions make absolutely no sense, and they are glorious. Salvador Dalí and Luis Buñuel would be proud.

The year is 2035, and somehow the government has figured out how to tax people for the contents of their dreams. (And let’s be real: they would if they could.) James Preble (Kentucky Audley) is a bureaucratic drone sent to the home of elderly eccentric Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) to audit a lifetime of dreams. This task is easier said than done: Bella has hundreds if not thousands of dusty VHS tapes containing every single one of her dreams, and they’ll take ages to peruse. But it isn’t long before Preble becomes unexpectedly caught up in Bella’s dreams, charmed by the vision of her younger self (Grace Glowicki), who so frequently makes an appearance. It’s with her aid that Preble makes a startling discovery that threatens to upend his entire worldview and puts his very life in danger.

The first half of Strawberry Mansion functions as a quirky, dreamlike romance, while the second half attempts to introduce anti-capitalist social commentary. It’s strong in the former, where it has the space to float along, blissfully abstract, and be satisfied with cultivating a uniquely creative atmosphere. Bella’s house is a glory of set decoration, packed full of dated rooms, outdated technology, and memories the world has long since deemed obsolete.

The various dreamscapes capture an engaging kaleidoscope of colors and moods as the filmmakers experiment with half a dozen different animation styles. The vaguely Harold and Maude-ish relationship that develops between Preble and Bella as they get to know one another is sweet despite its strangeness: he’s drawn to the younger version of her, but he also has a growing affection for the lonely old woman, with all of her quirks and charms.

As a character, Preble is muted, a mere cog in a larger bureaucratic machine. Audley leans into his more nondescript qualities, although it may perhaps be giving him too much credit as an actor to imply that he’s purposefully toning down any sense of charisma to suit the character. But whether by providence or design, the mundanity of Preble perfectly serves the narrative, a counterbalance to its more fantastical elements.

But as Preble becomes more entrenched in this idyllic dream world, he learns the truth about the government’s insidious hold over their nighttime reveries. This is where things begin to get a little bit muddled because everything just sort of spirals into wilder, more abstract storytelling until only the barest shreds of a plot remain. There’s an exhilarating sort of charm that comes from going off on a stream-of-consciousness visual tangent for about thirty minutes, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Viewers who prefer narratives with at least one foot in the general proximity of the ground may find themselves overwhelmed by the assault of imagery that defines the second half of the film.

Still, there’s something to be said for a pair of filmmakers capable of something as delightfully weird as Strawberry Mansion, and there’s a certain creative joyfulness that comes through as they allow their imagination to run rampant. For a low-budget production without star power or even a detailed narrative, the sheer imagination it contains is completely captivating. If you’re going into this cinematic experience with the expectation of a clearly defined narrative and traditional storytelling, you’ll likely wind up disappointed in its stubborn refusal to adhere to filmmaking rules in general. But for viewers who are willing to give it the benefit of the doubt, let go of the expectation that storytellers should provide coherent answers (because Audley and Birney certainly won’t), and fully immerse themselves in a dreamy, surrealist vibe, Strawberry Mansion is a rewarding risk that mostly pays off.

Written by
Audrey Fox has been an entertainment journalist since 2014, specializing in film and television. She has written for Awards Circuit, Jumpcut Online, Crooked Marquee, We Are the Mutants, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. Audrey is firm in her belief that Harold Lloyd is the premier silent film comedian, Sky High is the greatest superhero movie ever made, Mad Men's "The Suitcase" is the single best episode of television to date, and no one in the world has ever given Anton Walbrook enough credit for his acting work. Her favorite movies include Inglourious Basterds, Some Like It Hot, The Elephant Man, Singin' in the Rain, Jurassic Park, and Back to the Future.

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