'Strawberry Mansion': Film Review | Sundance 2021

Strawberry Mansion
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Sweet respite from painful times.

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney's film is a futuristic fantasy-romance revolving around a man and the woman whose dreams he is tasked with auditing.

It’s rare for an independent film to be as gentle and childlike as Strawberry Mansion, the second feature collaboration from writing-directing team Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. The filmmakers, who have made a number of movies separately, established their whimsical partnership with Sylvio, a similarly quirky comedy about a kind, misunderstood gorilla who loves puppets. That film introduced us to Audley and Birney’s quiet, candy-colored world characterized by curiosity and warmth. Strawberry Mansion is a journey into our dreams, finding beauty within our rambling minds.

The film tells the story of James Preble (played by Audley), a lonely man living in the year 2035. His job is auditing dreams, a profession he takes very seriously. Every morning he taxes his own dreams, before getting dressed in a business suit (with matching fedora) to go about his work. On the particular day the film begins, he has a dream in which he is standing in a pastel pink kitchen. Everything in the kitchen is cute and plastic, like the pieces from a Barbie dream house. He looks all over the kitchen for something to eat and drink but doesn’t find anything. Then suddenly, a man (Linas Phillips) appears with a 2-liter of name-brand soda and food from a KFC-like chicken chain restaurant. As soon as he leaves the house, he orders food from that same restaurant and eats it alone in a parking lot. These events are thematically important, but the film takes its time revealing why.

Preble's assignment is to audit the dreams of a strange old woman named Bella (Penny Fuller), who has somehow avoided doing her taxes for the majority of her life. She lives in the titular strawberry mansion, accompanied only by a turtle named Sugarbaby who loves strawberries. Bella welcomes Preble into her home like an old friend, and he begins getting to know her during meals, where they eat pointedly home-cooked non-brand food. What Bella doesn’t tell him about her life he finds in her dreams, in which a younger version of Bella (Grace Glowiki) frolics through a storybook version of her own memories. Preble slowly falls in love with Young Bella and soon he begins to wonder how important his job was in the first place. 

The future that Audley and Birney create is vintage and analog, with bulky technology that wouldn’t look out of place in an '80s film. VHS tapes are featured heavily, and there’s not a disk in sight. When Preble puts on the helmet to transmit his hologram into Bella’s dreams, he resembles a clunky robot from '50s science-fiction films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet. The car Preble drives is something out of the late '60s or early '70s, while his fedora and suit look like they were plucked from a '40s detective film. Production designer Rebecca Brooks Morrin, art director Lydia Milano and costume designer Mack Reyes borrow elements from a number of decades to construct a future that feels outside of time and dreamlike in its own right. The dreams are populated by humanoid-like animals, monsters and endless stretches of grassy meadows and fields. The love Preble and Bella have is playful and chaste, with none of the barriers of real-world problems and anxieties.

For much of the runtime, the events of the film are so low-stakes that it’s a bit shocking when the plot kicks in and changes the tone. Oddly, the fried chicken and soda from Preble’s opening dream are linked to a nefarious conspiracy, and Preble is the only one who can tell the world the truth. To reveal more would spoil the film’s few genuine surprises. But suffice it to say that Strawberry Mansion is a movie about the preservation of imagination. There is definitely an undercurrent of anti-corporate messaging that is always relevant in this modern media landscape. But these themes are not presented with a heavy hand. The point that the film is trying to make can be taken as lightly or as seriously as one likes. What Audley and Birney seem to want most is for audiences to allow themselves to be overtaken by their deliberately childlike approach to storytelling. 

At its heart, Strawberry Mansion is an intentionally light respite from the painful times that we’re living in right now. As other independent films try to capture this cultural and political moment, Audley and Birney are more interested in presenting a tale that is timeless. It’s a candy-colored storybook that wants nothing more than to put you at ease.

Venue: Sundance (NEXT)
Production companies: Ley Line Entertainment, Kaleidoscope Entertainment, Salem Street Entertainment, UnLtd Productions, Cartuna
Cast: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Linas Phillips, Reed Birney
Writer-directors: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney
Producers: Emma Hannaway, Matisse Rifai, Sarah Winshall, Taylor Ava Shung
Executive producers: Alex Plapinger, Adam Kersh, James Belfer, Adam Belfer, Andrew Belfer, Elaine Thomas, Todd Remis, David Moscow, Tim Headington, Theresa Steele Page
Co-executive Producer: Nate Kamiya
Director of photography: Tyler Davis
Production designer: Becca Brooks Morrin
Costume designer: Mack Reyes
Editors: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney
Art director: Lydia Milano

90 min.