Perspectives Film Festival 2021 Review: ‘Strawberry Mansion’4 min readReading Time: 3 minutes
In a world where the government records and taxes dreams, an unassuming dream auditor gets swept up in a cosmic journey through the life and dreams of an ageing eccentric named Bella. Together, they must find a way back home.
Directors: Kentucker Audley, Albert Birney
Cast: Kentucker Audley, Penny Fuller, Grace Glowicki, Reed Birney, Linas Phillips
Runtime: 90 minutes
The main question the delightfully far-out Strawberry Mansion asks of its audience isn’t “Why?” but “Why not?”. The film is staggeringly idiosyncratic, featuring surreal imageries and kitschy aesthetics straight out of fever dreams. Its use of hokey special effects prominent of sci-fi in the yesteryears isn’t a charming gimmick either. Instead, it embraces the antiquated techniques to revive the imaginative wonders lost amidst a generation of sterile, true-to-life computer effects.
Set in the near future of 2035, corporate greed has grown even more rampant. No moment is safe. Dreams have been infiltrated by advertisements and even what is conjured in sleep has become taxable. James (Kentucker Audley), a soft-spoken auditor, pays elderly and eccentric recluse Bella (Penny Fuller) a visit to investigate why she owes decades-worth of dream taxes.
James finds out that he has to go through thousands of VHS tapes filled with her dreams and, within them, falls for a younger vision of Bella (Grace Glowicki). Thus begins a journey across dreamscapes featuring a frog jazz musician, anthropomorphic mouse sailors and giant caterpillars as James searches for a kidnapped Bella and escapes from her nefarious son (Reed Birney).
Even during its glacial first half, the film remains ever-absorbing thanks to its wondrous visuals inspired by a delectable mix of time periods. It features a vision of the future where styles and trends have stagnated by the 1980s. James, clad in a suit straight out of a noir, traverses through Bella’s pastel-washed mansion filled with VHS tapes. He uses a headgear twice his size, harkening to props from 1970s B movies, to audit her dreams. Shot digitally before being converted to 16mm film, the resulting film grains and saturated colours make Strawberry Mansion easy on the eyes.
The comforting nostalgia of these stylistic choices forebodingly clashes with the futuristic tech, reserved only for profit-making purposes. There is an unnerving sense that these technological advancements try their best to mask their intentions through emulating the sweet innocence found everywhere else in the film world. It’s a welcomed subtlety.
Moments like these draw attention to a profound understanding of colour textures and tones that elevates Strawberry Mansion beyond being pastiche. So often, the film’s mood is told through minute palette switches, such as the use of drunk tank pink in James’ ad-filled dream prison contrasting with the ever-so-slightly warmer tones found in Bella’s mansion. Similarly, different emotions are drawn from the same places with clever use of lighting and hues.
Far more arresting and apparent is Strawberry Mansion’s psychedelic visuals. A few brushes with horror aside, these are more welcoming than disturbing, helped by electronic musician Dan Deacon’s ethereal soundtrack. Where the film’s imagination takes off is with how it employs outdated special effects: Dynamation, claymation, puppetry, just to name a few. They are all a joy, especially when coupled with the film’s emphasis on physical props.
The film packs a charm doubled by the cast’s performance. Director and lead Kentucker Audley brings a captivating awkwardness and gullibility to James. Together with Grace Glowicki, the pair presents a manic-pixie-dream-girl-meets-boy dynamic that is undemanding and comfortable to root for. They bring a delightful and committed playfulness throughout their journey; them floundering around (clearly in front of a green screen) and morphing into all shapes and sizes is always splendid fun.
Strawberry Mansion is trippy but far from intimidating — if anything, the film is probably prime date-night material with its sugary romance and inviting colour palettes. It’s a hearty love letter to imagination itself.
From now till 31 October, the Perspectives Film Festival 2021 will present an eclectic collection of boundary-pushing works that are sure to make you fill in the blanks to the festival’s theme: “What the _?!”. This year’s hybrid edition will feature exclusive premieres of acclaimed titles and screen restored classics from the 1970s and 1980s — check them out at: https://www.perspectivesfilmfestival.com/films/