In sci-fi movies, the future often looks like a generic kitchen remodel—all burnished steel and minimalist lines. Not so with Strawberry Mansion, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s film about a dystopian tomorrow where even dreams have been monetized. Although it’s set in the year 2035, Strawberry Mansion has a charming handcrafted aesthetic, creating its futuristic world out of crochet and cardboard and yards upon yards of VHS tape. That speaks, of course, to the project’s low-budget origins. But it’s also consistent with its anti-corporate mentality, a storybook celebration of imagination unencumbered by branding and consumer culture.
This DIY philosophy is to be expected coming from Audley, who’s been a fixture of micro-budget, mumblecore-adjacent American movies since the early 2000s. Here, the director-writer-actor stars as James Preble, an unquestioning cog in a government machine that requires citizens to hook themselves up to a device that records their dreams and analyzes them for taxation purposes. One day, he’s sent to audit Bella (Penny Fuller), an aging multimedia artist who’s figured out how to circumvent dream taxes with a helmet that records her subconscious visions on VHS tape. Faced with the overwhelming task of combing through decades’ worth of videos, Preble settles into Bella’s guest room and prepares to stay for a while. But the longer he visits, the more he finds himself converting to Bella’s anti-surveillance worldview—not to mention falling in love with the younger version of her (Grace Glowicki) who appears in her dreams.
But this analog reverie is not to last. As Preble and Bella marvel at the stop-motion skeletons and frog waiters who populate her nighttime world, forces are gathering to force her to incorporate brands like Cap’n Kelly’s chicken and Red Rocket cola into her dreams. This is where Strawberry Mansion begins to resemble a fantasy adventure along the lines of The Neverending Story or The Wizard Of Oz, crossing time and space while paradoxically remaining in a single location. Perhaps the most enchanting aspect of the film is its understanding of dream logic, working external plot points into fantastical narratives that make their own kind of internal sense. “One night we turned into beets,” Preble explains in voiceover narration—random, except not really, once you remember that real-world Bella and real-world Preble had beets for dinner the previous evening.
Strawberry Mansion isn’t as satisfying on a storytelling level. The film only tosses in Hail Mary plot developments when absolutely necessary, preferring to linger in Bella and Preble’s literal dream world where whimsy rules and anything is possible. This is, of course, consistent with the overall ethos of the project, which rejects rigid conformity in all its manifestations. But the battle for the characters’ minds—and, by extension, all of human imagination—can be narratively underwhelming.
Still, there’s a lot to appreciate about Strawberry Mansion as an aesthetic object, a flight of imagination, and a sci-fi vision. Its message is political, but it’s not interested in conking viewers over the head with its themes. The music, by composer Dan Deacon, knows when to shimmer and when to swell. The filmmakers combine celluloid grain and green screen to original effect, and the use of color is inspired. (How many brainwashing chambers have you seen that are painted the shade of strawberry gelato?) With eccentricity like that guiding the filmmaking, perhaps it’s to be expected—and easily forgiven—that Strawberry Mansion wanders off to chase butterflies.