Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s charming, low-budget Sundance oddity imagines a world in which our sleeping hours are for sale.
It’s a common belief that nothing is more boring than hearing about other people’s dreams. This should make James Preble, the timid, cutely mustachioed hero of “Strawberry Mansion,” the unlucky owner of the world’s most boring career. He’s a tax auditor who has to sift through his clients’ dreams for hidden costs. In this endearingly cash-strapped sci-fi fiction, this makes a strange kind of logic. Set in 2035 of paper-mâché futurism and rebellious analog aesthetics or, more accurately, its senselessness is reinforced by the film’s hazy, ludicrous world-building.
Within its flimsy framework, “Strawberry Mansion” tries to achieve a lot, ranging from prankish surrealist farce to fey, across-time love story, occasionally giving way to an anti-capitalist satire aimed squarely at present. If it doesn’t adhere to any one task for long, instead of skittering distractedly between brilliant thoughts and brighter pictures, that’s the nature of dreams. In its investigation of where we go when we close our eyes, Audley and Birney’s film is far closer to the irrational disorder of “The Science of Sleep” than the clinical architecture of “Inception.” The numbers on either side are likely to remain small following its premiere in Sundance’s NEXT strand.
Audley, the eccentric actor-filmmaker widely known as the man behind the free microbudget streaming site NoBudge, isn’t renowned for being a conventional distributor. “Strawberry Mansion” boldly displays its fix-it-and-make-do mentality, beginning with its unique, creative filming style. The film shot digitally but converted to 16mm after editing happily carries the blown-out light and smeary film grain of both techniques.
That feels entirely appropriate for a scrapbooked picture of the near future assembled by Becca Brooks Morrin and costume designer Mack Reyes from jumbled twentieth-century decades of fashion and industrial design. For starters, Preble’s tweedy 1950s outfit contrasts with the 1980s videocassettes he uses to traverse other people’s dreams. Only that absurd capacity places these events far in the future; otherwise, it’s like if an atomic explosion wiped out all post-internet technology.
Audley portrays Preble, a depressed-looking bachelor with no life outside of work — except than lonely drive-thru binges on cruelly processed fried chicken, which also appears prominently in his nightmares. He’s summoned to the beautiful rural house of Bella (Penny Fuller), an old eccentric who’s several decades late on her dream taxes. Accepting her invitation to stay for a few days, he embarks on the mammoth task of sifting through her library of recorded dreams, determining which of her unconscious thoughts have been living rent-free in her head. In the process, he loses his heart to Bella’s charming younger self (Grace Glowicki), discovering the bliss he has long sought in a dreamscape that isn’t even his own.
It’s a complicated situation that doesn’t get any easier when it turns out that other authorities have their sights set on Bella’s antiquated archive — which has the potential to expose a creepy corporate conspiracy that allows aggressive marketing to infiltrate even the non-waking lives of the general public. It’s easy to envision a slick episode of “Black Mirror” running wild with the notion of dream advertising as a paranoid allegory for our current age of data-sharing and its creepy, intrusive implications. The writing by Audley and Birney isn’t blind to these implications, but it leaves the audience to unpick them as it follows its romantic dream.
Preble and Bella are constantly separated by time and space, as well as interdimensional oceans, in a star-crossed adventure that eventually returns to their initial encounter — which turns out to have been a reunion instead. These transformations demand a high level of whimsy, particularly when the old Bella (played by Fuller with a sarcastic, deadpan spaciness) disappears in favor of her younger, manic-pixie dream self.
In Preble’s first conversation with Bella, he inquires about her occupation: Her jumbled, meandering response takes many twists before arriving at the word “environment maker,” to which Preble groans internally before scribbling “artist.” The creators of “Strawberry Mansion” appear to be able to identify as either.
Even as their picture pushes its flights of imagination to the limit, there are joys to be had in the happy, handcrafted execution of its vision, which throws everything from creaking animal puppets to 8-bit effects into the mix. It’s a picture with a discerning knowledge of how dreams function, in all its anarchic narrative structure and roundabout psycho-logic, and it doesn’t require a high fantasy budget to do that. Who gave Disney the monopoly on creating our fantasies in the first place?