“Strawberry Mansion” Sundance 2021 Review

Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Tyler Davis.

If you were to drain the weird juice from Netflix’s original series  “Maniac,” “Black Mirror”, extract the pulp from  Michel Gondry’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” add a dash of The Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever” and a scoop of hallucinogenic plot-laced bananas, you might come up with  something close to “Strawberry Mansion.”

And one hell of a brain ache induced by the dizzying, genre-defying romance sci-fi film created by Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley. 

The film, which premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival, is set in 2035  America where the government isn’t just tracking your movements, emails, and phone calls, it’s figured out to enter your mind and monetize your dreams.  After finding out that an elderly woman, Arabella “Bella” Isadora (Penny Fuller), has neglected to pay her dream taxes for nearly half a century and a government auditor by the name of James Preble (Kentucker Audley) goes to investigate. 

However, what transpires once he gets to the house is anything but simple. Before he steps foot over the threshold of the titular mansion, a Victorian-styled Strawberry-hued home, Preble is forced to comply with Bella’s sing-songy riddle: “Out of my hair and into my home you must lick the ice cream cone.” In an uncomfortably tight close-up, the camera zooms in on a reluctant Preble (and his tongue) as they are subjected to a vibrant pink scoop of what must be strawberry ice cream as ominous 1980s synthesized music. Once inside Preble is forced to catalog 2,000 VHS tapes containing all of her unaccounted dreams. While in the virtual reality-induced dream world, Preble spots a younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) living what seems like her best manic pixie dream girl life as she conjures images of anthropomorphic frogs that double as waiters and dancing skeletons. Seduced by her flight of whimsy in dreams but disheartened by her flighty behavior in reality, Preble finds both the phantasmal and corporeal world colliding. And of course, love is never easy in either realm. 

The first half of this 90-min sci-fi rom-com adventure is clear as it attempts to set up a love story in which the lonely Preble, looking for any excitement from his plain reality, tries to figure out how he can have his cake—tolerate living with elder Bella—and eat his strawberries too—enter a relationship with the younger dream-version of Bella.

The film feels like a dream in the sense that it is scattered, disjointed and flittering. That works in the first half because of the fantastical seeds it tries to plant about an unconventional love story; but in the second act, as the plot twists into a loony love story that branches out into conspiracies on subliminal messaging, it just doesn’t. There’s just too much going on: time travel, sailor rats, a seven year-journey, and anti-capitalism. 

There is just too much, and not enough focus to ground the film in any kind of reality, as weird as it may be, that would make the viewer want to care about whatever it’s trying to say. 

Instead of a cohesive story about how love transcends space and time, “Strawberry Mansion” just seems to be made up of things that Wes Anderson probably left on the cutting room floor for someone to then tried to sell to the folks at Black Mirror. It doesn’t quite work.

This is unfortunate as the film is pretty to look at with its vivid blue skies, lush green knolls, plushy glittering snow. But outside of its dreamy, otherworldly aesthetic and decent acting from Audley, Fuller and Glowicki all you’ve got left is a film that feels like one big sugar-coated accident. 

[originally posted in CSUDH Bulletin Feb 2021]

Directed, written, edited by: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney

Starring: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips, Constance Shulman, Ephraim Birney, Albert Birney.

Runtime: 90 mins

Premiered at Sundance Film Festival—NEXT 2021  

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