The intangible logic of our subconscious minds is what fuels Strawberry Mansion, a dazed and dreamy jaunt through nostalgic reverie and existential anxieties. Co-directed by Albert Bimey and Kentucker Audley (who also stars), the film is an exercise in creating a dreamscape by way of capturing texture—a venture that renders enthralling, gorgeous and unsettling images as a result. Not only is Strawberry Mansion a genuine feast for the eyes, but its plot is far more cohesive and calculated than most dream-like narratives care to strive for. This ensures that none of the audience falls into their own movie-induced slumber while also serving as a boon to the project’s ethos—one that desperately urges us to pay close attention to the details and potential meanings of our dreams, as they might just be the very key to our survival.
Set in the not-so-distant future, Strawberry Mansion follows James Preble (Audley), an auditor who works for a governmental agency that regulates “dream taxes,” a result of ads being projected into our most intimate mental moments. When he arrives at a sprawling Victorian abode with a magenta exterior, he believes he’s simply making a routine house call to address unpaid back taxes. An eccentric older woman named Bella (Penny Fuller) answers the door, and says she’ll only allow the tax man inside if he complies with her code: “To enter, you must lick the ice cream cone.” A bite-sized scoop of strawberry ice cream sits atop a small sugar cone—and though he’s reluctant at first, James eventually relents and licks the ice cream cone, a decision which effectively begins his odyssey of wading through thousands of VHS tapes containing Bella’s dreams. While he’s officially meant to be viewing these in order to collect data, he begins to fall in love with the younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) that serves as her constant avatar in dreamland. In fact, the auditor is so smitten that he hardly realizes the conspiracy he’s unwittingly landed himself within, spending all day in a clunky headset instead of piecing together the significance of how advertising and unpaid taxes converge.
There’s a clear anti-capitalist slant embedded in the film’s very fiber. Strawberry Mansion boldly depicts our society’s obsession with bureaucracy and profit in order to dismantle the tandem threat of boredom and violence that ascribing to these social structures entails. Concepts of work, forced technological obsolescence and rigid regulations are successfully critiqued while never feeling too lucid, allowing the primal conflict that these expectations impose on our most basic wants and desires to radiate through the viewer. The sheer thought of a lanky man in a cheap suit watching our most personal internal moments is icky enough, never mind the idea that product placement and commercial breaks could ever make their way into our subconscious. However, what really drives Strawberry Mansion home is the relative feasibility of its premise—after all, targeted ads seem to already be capable of reading our minds—making any surreal imagery it conjures all the more rooted in our very real anxieties concerning the future of surveillance and privacy.
While the ideas espoused in the film are brilliant in their straightforward provocation, its true innovation is evident within inspired set design, costuming and the blending of both visual and technical mediums. Strawberry Mansion convincingly recreates the mashed-up texture of dreams, borrowing oft-disparate images that filter through our everyday lives, mounting over time into a steady stream of image-based memories and crude sensory recollections for our sleeping minds to reference at random. Analog objects such as VHS tapes, landlines and handheld tape recorders are utilized in both waking moments and imagined interiorities, a facet that immediately evokes nostalgia for either a concrete or imagined past. The Strawberry Mansion itself is a veritable playground for this concept, cluttered with several generations’ worth of memories and technology that has by now been deemed totally archaic. This creatively manifests in shaggy figures completely decked-out in VHS film strips, Y2K-esque multicolored fluorescent helmets and primitively-welded headsets. However, a certain naturalistic charm colors the most lusciously beautiful dream sequences, whether taking the form of a dolphin breaching through a wave’s crest or an elusive figure composed entirely of long, wispy strands of grass.
Another example of Strawberry Mansion’s commitment to capturing texture is in the lo-fi way the filmmakers utilize 16mm film. D.P. Tyler Davis shot digitally for the entire production, with a 16mm transfer performed after filming was concluded. It’s always lovely to see creators finding inventive workarounds in order to achieve the unparalleled visual splendor of presenting a project on film, especially when it’s able to be done on a budget. In this sense, the film is also in conversation with a litany of predecessors and influences, these hazy fever dreams often channeling Lynch, Labyrinth and The Forbidden Room all at once. One also can’t help but note certain similarities to Smiling Friends, the latest trippy, horror-tinged Adult Swim show, in their shared depiction of humanoid frogs that are a bit too nice for how hulking they are and blue-eyed demons with high-pitched shrieks. However, the references one gleans from Strawberry Mansion are likely to be completely subjective to the media that has defined our tastes, our dreams and our experiences.
Always engrossing yet never laboriously abstract, Strawberry Mansion creates a delectable realm of reverie that’s easy to get lost in—though it can also feel tensely labyrinthine at times. Musing on the human capacity for love, greed and tenacity, it’s likely to make one misty-eyed during certain (sparse) moments of tranquility and personal peace, reflecting the beauty in realizing our own aspirations and impulses instead of blindly accepting what we’re told to be and do. The life that best suits us might be far-flung from the life we’re currently living, and sometimes it takes a ridiculous situation to unmoor us from the constraints of routine and ritual. Just remember: When in doubt, always be sure to lick the strawberry ice cream cone.
Directors: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney
Writers: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney
Stars: Kentucker Audley, Reed Birney, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Linas Phillips
Release Date: February 18, 2022 (Music Box Films)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan