Review: Retro-futuristic and genuinely romantic, Strawberry Mansion is utterly unique

strawberry mansion– writer-director Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, the wildly surreal and charmingly quirky indie – is part dystopian sci-fi, part storybook fantasy and part quirky horror, the kind of hodgepodge movie that conjures up a dozen different movies while feeling utterly unique.

Set in a retro-futuristic depiction of 2035, the film imagines a disturbing totality of capitalism: in dreams, everything one imagines to have monetary value is taxed upon waking, the whole enterprise being conducted under the watchful eye of the federal government. James Preble (played by a suitably underrated Audley) is a dream listener who has been tasked with combing through hours of untraceable dream tapes of eccentric old Bella (a wonderful Penny Fuller), who managed to escape at the dream tax for years.

What begins as a routine audit at Bella’s rural home quickly turns into an increasingly obtuse mystery, as a strange connection between James and Bella begins to emerge. Audley and Birney employ a stilted weirdness to strawberry mansion which works to keep everything slightly offbeat, with a handcrafted quality imbuing the production design. At its most inventive, the film evokes the same uneasy tweeeness of Michel Gondry in its most mischievous form; a recurring sequence set in a pepto-bismol pink room, for example, is both delightful and grotesque, while the addition of actors wearing ultra-realistic animal masks is played for both laughs and screams.

The film lives in the binary of storybook characters – when Bella tells James about her first husband, she calls him an “evil man” and says that her son, Peter (Reed Birney), took his father for it. When Peter shows up, unexpectedly, at Bella’s house, he calls his mother “pretty old” and dismisses her as delusional. Audley’s James, looking like an embattled noir detective in an ill-fitting suit and fedora, records everything that happens to him with the same weary indifference.

There’s a charming inconsistency that often feels surreal, and strawberry mansion succeeds as a sincere adult fantasy during its elaborate dream sequences. There are times when the tone of the film feels unintentionally flat, even if, particularly in deadlock, performance is unaffected. And for a world as vast as Birney and Audley have conceived, the main plot driver – James’s discovery that an advertising giant is hijacking dreams in order to make a profit on taxable property – feels cynically short-sighted.

Still, it’s easy to get lost in Tyler Davis’ lush cinematography, which, paired with Dan Deacon’s eerie but heartwarming score, makes strawberry mansion feeling decidedly rich despite the slim layout. Audley and Birney have imagined an old-school movie house, using stop-motion animation, clay models and practical effects in a genuinely romantic film that, like our own dreams, manages to resonate beyond any logical sense.

strawberry mansion is in theaters now, including at the Music Box Theater in Chicago.

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