Sundance 2021 – Strawberry Mansion

There’s plenty to admire about Strawberry Mansion, the latest from writer/directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley. In a quasi-present/future, James Preble (Kentucker Audley) is a dream auditor for the government. In this world, the government monitors the dreams of the populace to tax them as well as run ads to influence their shopping decisions. When Preble goes to a remote farmhouse to audit the dreams of an eccentric elderly lady, Bella (Penny Fuller), his divide between dreams and reality begins to blur as he finds an opportunity for love and a dangerous secret. Boasting some remarkable world-building and production design, it is unfortunately held down by a script that takes a dull turn in the second half.

I’ve always liked watching Kentucker Audley, he’s in quite a few films I’ve loved (The Sacrament, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Sun Don’t Shine) and he’s pleasant here. I’m always down for Reed Birney playing villainous, and Grace Glowicki embodies a sort of perfect dream well.

The production design team brings the heat on this one. There’s honestly something to wonder at in just about every shot of this film, the look of this thing is just gorgeous. The cinematography has a glowy, colorful look to it that’s enhanced by the feel of the film grain. Birney and Audley choose to do as much as they can with practical effects/non-CGI elements to bring these dreams and this world to life and there’s some real marvelous images they concoct from this decision. They utilize stop-motion and animatronic puppetry to great effect, making the feel of their work distinct. The great Dan Deacon contributes a terrific, dreamy (hehe) synth score that’s a real highlight of the film. 

The problem Birney and Audley run into is that they spell out their commentary on surveillance and corporation dominance far more literally than is ever necessary. About halfway through, Bella tells James that the government is putting ads in people’s dreams, and somehow the film treats this as a shock. It shouldn’t be, it’s been obvious since the first scene that this is what’s happening. They give it to you plainly in the beginning, so the fact that they think both James and the audience haven’t clued in is disappointing. There’s nothing to suggest that James would be so oblivious to this, and that he’s the first to discover this. It just makes him look stupid that he wouldn’t know what his job entailed. It’s like if halfway through Inception Leonardo DiCaprio went “Wait, you can break into somebody’s dreams???” as if it hadn’t told us that from the beginning. The further it goes with this “twist” the more it drags itself down despite looking real neat the whole way. It’s a route that doesn’t necessarily come to much of anything either, other than to extend the film’s runtime. 

I don’t want to sound too down on this film, there’s really plenty to admire about it. It’s clear this duo of Birney and Audley have passion, vision and skill. I’m eager to check out the previous films they’ve done together, and will be keeping my eye on them going forward. It’s just disappointing to watch a film with such clear dedication take the least interesting route it can.

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