Strawberry Mansion (2021)

It is very difficult to classify Strawberry Mansion.

It has a science fictional setting, a very retro near future where the protagonist drives a first generation Corvair and works as a tax auditor, assessing how much people owe for their dreams.  On the other hand, some would describe this as more of a fantasy, as we learn very little about how all this works or how it came about.

It has a lot of weird visuals, some of them very surreal, and a lot of the film takes place inside various dreams, both live and Memorex.  There’s even a very strange sort of romance, suggestions that somehow dreams can affect reality, a mystery, an attempted murder and a secret government conspiracy.

And, if you haven’t guessed yet, yes, this is an Independent film, which somehow achieves a rich visual story on a minimal budget.

James Preble is a dream auditor: he goes through a taxpayer’s recorded dreams and identifies the objects in them that are taxable.  He suffers from nightmares himself, but fortunately, he has a dream friend who shows up at the worst moments, bringing a bucket of Cap’n Kelly fried chicken and a bottle of Red Rocket Cola (I have no idea whether this is a deliberate Mike Allred reference or not).

He’s been sent to audit Arabella Isadora — or as she prefers to be called, Bella — and is shocked to learn that she has a house full of the old-style dream tapes (which are actually old Betamax tapes) as everything is recorded on computer chips these days.  She has so many that it will take him days to go through them all.

Bella insists that he stay in the house, but James realizes that there is something strange about the case.  Bella hasn’t paid her dream taxes for years, and yet she was the one who contacted the IRS and reported her unreviewed tapes.  And, as he settles in, he has a number of unsettling moments when he seems caught in a dream even though he is awake…

Strawberry Mansion offers a constant series of contrasts: Bella’s lives in a very grounded and down-to-Earth home, a welcoming and comfortable old place, surrounded by flowers, vegetable gardens and a flock of chickens — and yet in dreams the film carries us to tiny tropical islands, a bright, strawberry pink room, sailing vessels and submarines.  There are strange creatures — a frog-headed waiter, a crew of mice in sailor suits, and the terrifying Blue Demon — but there is also Bela’s unpleasant family.

And a tiny turtle in Bella’s terrarium.

Perhaps the film Strawberry Mansion resembles the most is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: it takes us on a similar, somewhat surreal dream journey, even if it does so within a fairly straightforward linear narrative.

And yes, that dream helmet Bella made for herself does remind you of the colander turned brain reprogrammer in the Jim Carrey film.

Even though it is covered with lots of little LED lights.

However, this is not a movie about memories and the past, full of flashbacks, but is instead about dreams, creativity and freedom.  Its strange worlds are all dream stuff, even if they are tied to real world events as dreams so often are.

Co-director and Co-writer Kentucker Audley plays James: he seems rather blank, and we never get that much insight into his character.  I suspect that this is a deliberate choice as the movie reveals very little about who he is or how he ended up as a tax man.  Even his dreams tell us very little about him, although there are reasons for that.  He clearly develops throughout the film, and yet we mostly learn this from the narrative and not as much from his performance.

However, Penny Fuller’s Bella overflows with eccentric charm, making her weird and goofy, and yet instantly likeable.

This is a very strange little movie.  It will appeal most to those who love Art House films, although it is a very approachable film and it should prove entertaining to anyone who can appreciate its often absurd sense of humor.  It is impressive what they achieved on a very limited budget, although it helps that, in a dream world, we can easily accept a frog waiter with visible strips showing across the head of its papier-mâché head, or furry costumed mice.  The seams show a bit in a few of the sequences — for example, when James gets buried under a huge pile of brightly colored plastic kitchenware, you can see where some of the paint rubbed off in places — but it makes up for it with a deliberately unrealistic approach in its fantasy sequences.

It’s always impressive when some young Indie filmmaker brings a breath of fresh air to the genre, and Strawberry Mansion is definitely as fresh and tasty as the strawberries Bella grows in her garden.

And, fortunately, like so many other Indie films these days, it has moved at breathless speed from the Indie circuit to the VOD market, so you should have no trouble seeing it.

It’s definitely worth a look…

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