Review: Strawberry Mansion — Fantasia Festival 2021

James Preble (Kentucker Audley, who also co-directs) is a tax worker, but what he audits is out of the ordinary. In the near future of Strawberry Mansion, the state audits people’s dreams, taxing the objects which manifest within the sleeping unconscious. Preble finds himself working a job on a remote estate owned by an elderly artist, Bella Isadora (Penny Fuller).

Bella, an eccentric hobbyist of all things creative, has left her dreams on the outdated medium of VHS tapes, something which will take Preble many hours to sift through. With over 2,000 tapes lying around the large house, he spends multiple days entering into these tapes as holograms via a clunky helmet viewfinder (which is visually reminiscent of the Star Wars universe’s gonk droid). He sits in the guest room, entering dreams and noting the tax on items ranging from a mundane maple tree branch to a buffalo with dandelion flowers inside of its belly.

Along the way, Preble comes to know, and be enamored by, the young Bella Isadora (Grace Glowicki). And when her son enters the picture, and makes it clear that Preble is not welcome snooping around her dreams, he embarks on a surreal adventure through Bella’s dreamworld, seeking out some futile form of escape from the (decidedly capitalist) reality of his waking life.

Audley and Albert Birney’s film is an imaginative, yet ultimately clunky, portrayal of fantastical escapism. At the core of the film is a flat, straight-forward message about the encroachment of consumerism on original creative thought, a message which is literalized with a cheeky and fun performance from Linas Phillips.

But this message, and the commercial parody that comes along with it, does not exactly square with the emotional tenderness that is intended for the film’s two main players. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of episodic dream adventures, aggressively shady family members, and a growing house fire, the emotional resonance gets lost in a flurry of dream logic and surreal humor.

This dream logic produces moments of levity and some intriguing imagery—I can’t rightly deny the delight in seeing a frog man playing a saxophone—but the tone gets warped within these sequences just as the rules of time and space do. The film can’t help but bring to mind other filmmakers working in these visual and narrative spaces—one could describe it as a Michel Gondry fantasy meeting a Wes Anderson aesthetic. To be fair, this intersection is bound to draw a certain, appreciative audience. I just don’t believe I am a part therein. I appreciate the craft involved, but the end result fails to move me.

Strawberry Mansion is screening as part of the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival taking place from Aug. 5 to Aug. 25.

Strawberry Mansion: C+

As always, thanks for reading!

—Alex Brannan (Twitter, Letterboxd, Facebook)

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