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Tyler Davis/Sundance Institute

Strawberry Mansion (2021)

If “Fight Club” and “Being John Malkovich” had a non-violent baby, it would look a lot like “Strawberry Mansion.” No one could ever say that Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, who co-wrote and co-directed, were short of ideas or talent. The smallish budget does show, but is more than made up for a barnstorming concept and highly stylized production design (take a bow, Becca Brooks Morrin). It’s strange to be annoyed by a movie for having too many ideas, but these days it’s stranger still to watch a movie that bubbles like a stewpot instead of glistening like a bento box. The trouble with the final result, unfortunately, is all too human.

So is the set-up: In 2035, Americans are taxed on the items which appear in their dreams. A dandelion is three cents, a buffalo a quarter. All Americans are expected to record their dreams and then report them to the tax authorities. The set-up is neatly shown inside of a dream belonging to James Preble (Mr. Audley), a dream auditor himself. He then arrives at the home of Arabella (Penny Fuller), who has not declared her dreams for decades despite dutifully recording them on VHS tapes. So James puts on the helmet – a large ridiculous thing, half diving bell and half Cyberman – required to view Arabella’s dreams and gets to work on the audit. From the first dream it’s clear things will not be simple, of course.

The theme here is the limits of human imagination and how ideas percolate in a human brain. Arabella is an artist, who initially greets James wearing a homemade helmet covered in Christmas lights. Her home is a riot of color and paint, with an entire room filled her dream tapes. She insists on putting James up – he gets to share a bedroom with Sugarbaby, the pet turtle – and cooking him meals far nicer than the fast-food buckets he normally survives on. She confides a secret early on, but her other only becomes apparent as James watches the dreams from when Arabella was a young woman (Grace Glowicki).

The cleverness of Arabella’s first secret becomes more apparent as the film unfurls – it’s a sharp and logical idea, with repetitive imagery that judders with menace. The second secret is a much slower burn; no movie was ever improved by stranding its characters on a desert island. The acting in these later sections is so amateurish as to be ridiculous, which could only be a stylistic choice, dream logic being what it is. The images pile on top of each other – an entirely pink kitchen, creatures made from strips of film, curtains on fire, rats in sailor suits, a frog waiter (Mr. Birney) – but Tyler Davis’s cinematography manages to separate the real and the dream worlds, as does the use of limited C.G.I. and stop-motion animation. James maintains a politely constrained curiosity whether he is hugging a creature made of grass or cutting up strawberries for the turtle. It’s the Arabellas who are the more limited characters, but the clichéd limits for women in stereotypical male imaginations make another sharp, perhaps unintended, point. But the implication of James’s conversations with Arabella’s son Peter (Reed Birney) needed more space to breathe. It’s easy to miss what they were going for here; it makes Arabella’s reaction to James’s arrival even more eccentric and the limits of her own imagination even more sad. “Strawberry Mansion” might not be great, but it’s good, never boring, and its imagery sticks in the mind like an expensive dream.


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