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In the Indie Sensation ‘Strawberry Mansion,’ We Can’t Even Escape in Our Dreams

Movies are a kind of dreaming — sure, that’s a cliché, but some of the best films feel like you’re being transported out of your body, out of your reality, sent somewhere else, somewhere better. In fact, it can be actively jarring for a great movie to end, violently thrusting you back in your humdrum normal life. Movies can be that transformative — I’ve been in terrible moods that were wiped away by a really terrific film. It’s one of the reasons why I love them so much.

But movies themselves have sometimes wrestled with the fact that one’s own fantasy life has its limits. Whether it’s trying to escape into films (like in The Purple Rose of Cairo) or your own imagination (Brazil), some movies are here to tell you that we can’t fully break free — much as we’d like to think otherwise, we’re stuck in the here and now. And that can be a bitter pill to swallow when we just wanna get away.

The buzzy indie hit Strawberry Mansion is potentially a risky proposition, depending on your tolerance for all things twee, precious, quirky and surreal. This nearly uncategorizable film — partly a drama, partly a love story, partly a sci-fi parable — is set in a future in which even our dreams aren’t safe from product placement and taxation. Out now in select theaters but arriving on VOD on Friday, it’s a movie that argues for the power of the human imagination to set us free from the cruelty of the everyday. But what gives Strawberry Mansion its sting is a nagging suspicion from writer-directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley that their painfully ordinary protagonist will never completely elude the despair and mediocrity that have defined his existence. The character goes on a fantastic journey, but it may not be enough.

The year is 2035, and James Preble (Audley) works as an auditor. In the world of Strawberry Mansion, the items that we dream about are recorded, their monetary value assessed a tax that you upload into a computer. (The more expensive the items, the higher the tax, apparently.) As part of his job, Preble visits an older woman, Bella (Penny Fuller), who lives in the middle of nowhere in a bright-red house. She hasn’t adapted to the new digital taxation method — her dreams are still being recorded on VHS tapes — and so Preble has to go through all her old dreams to calculate how much she owes. A friendly, somewhat whimsical soul, Bella invites Preble to hang out at the house, stay in the guest room, make himself at home. Preble does so, and once he starts watching the tapes — he can immerse himself within the dreams using a cumbersome device worn over his head — he falls in love with the younger Bella (Grace Glowicki). But how can he make contact when he’s merely an observer inside the dreams?

Reminiscent of Michel Gondry, the director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, Strawberry Mansion has a handmade quality, especially in its special effects. There’s a lot of stop-motion tricks and old-school technology, like VCRs, incorporated into the storyline, and the movie itself was shot on digital but then transferred to 16mm, which gives every frame a nostalgic, out-of-time feel. (It’s like the film was actually made decades ago but only now discovered in someone’s dusty attic.) The graphics are sometimes intentionally dated-looking, and with his hipster mustache and fedora, Preble really ought to be riding a unicycle, not an out-of-date sedan. 

No question Strawberry Mansion is bespoke to within an inch of its life, and anyone who breaks out in hives at such a proposition will probably steer clear of a movie that, very slowly, begins to devolve into a dream logic where it’s sometimes hard to know if what we’re seeing is real or from the unconscious. But even if you have an allergy to such films, I’d advise sticking with Birney and Audley’s vision, which would be cutesy if it wasn’t incredibly despairing underneath.

It’s hard to explain precisely what happens in Strawberry Mansion, but much is tied to a revelation that the older Bella lays on Preble: Someone is inserting product placement into everyone’s dreams, manipulating our unconscious selves. (No wonder Preble has such a craving for Cap’n Kelly’s fried chicken when he wakes up.) And after Bella dies, he’s confronted by her adult son (Reed Birney, from Mass, who’s the co-director’s uncle) and his family, who start destroying the VHS tapes, the only connection Preble has to the young Bella, no matter how tenuous it is.  

The filmmakers position the older Bella as their spokesperson who makes the movie’s themes explicit. Early on when Preble confesses that he’s worried he’s losing his mind, she cheerfully responds, “It’s about time,” an indication of this film’s rejection of the traditional, the staid, the mundane. And indeed Strawberry Mansion’s dream realm is a vibrant, sometimes disturbing world filled with talking animals, strange odysseys and acid-trip spectacle. But while Preble’s blah existence is elevated when he steps into the unconscious — either his own or Bella’s — what’s striking is that he never quite transcends his own ordinariness. Soft-spoken and mild-mannered, Preble doesn’t remake himself into some stirring hero in his dreams — he’s still basically himself. Even his name signifies how minuscule he is. A couple times during the film, I could have sworn other characters were calling him “Pebble” — a fitting moniker for someone so insignificant.

But it’s also apt for a movie that suggests how we’re systematically being stripped of everything that makes us us. On a superficial level, Strawberry Mansion is yet another warning about big bad corporations and our shrinking personal privacy, but even the film’s flights of fancy are corrupted by a sense that imagination and creativity have been co-opted and turned against us. What if your dreams were merely masked advertisements for fast food? 

In a way, Birney and Audley’s handmade effects and outdated techniques are a revolt against so-called modern advancements, with older Bella’s embrace of VCRs a familiar but understandable resistance to celebrating every new technology shoved down our throats. You can argue that romanticizing some imagined glorious past is just as dumb — people despised VHS tapes when they first came out, too — but the movie’s attempts at whimsy are constantly undercut by the fact that everything pure, even true love, may soon be little more than a commodity.

Or maybe that’s just how I read the ending. Like dreams, movies are sometimes open to multiple interpretations, and while I wouldn’t want to spoil Strawberry Mansion’s finale, I’ll simply say that what might seem happy to others registered for me as only deeply bittersweet. Some of us would do anything to be with our soulmate, but this movie presents us with a scenario that suggests that some arrangements may be less than ideal. But maybe that’s just me: The thing about dreams is that, as nice as they may be, they’ll never replace the only real world we’ll ever know. Sometimes, escaping isn’t triumphant — it just feels like a wish for something that won’t quite come true.