Review: ‘Strawberry Mansion’ is a sweet delight

“Strawberry Mansion” marks Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s second collaboration after the success of “Sylvio.” It is currently playing in select cinemas.

An illustration of a frog wearing a red suit and magenta pants. The frog is playing the saxophone and is on top of a blue background speckled with stars and spotlight rays.

Bridget Harshman

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s “Strawberry Mansion” marks a new collaboration for the directorial duo. The imaginative, pastel-clad story is playing in select cinemas. (Illustration by Bridget Harshman)

Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer, Arts Editor

Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s “Strawberry Mansion” is like a René Magritte painting brought to life. Channeling the wild imagination of Terry Gilliam and filtering it through a pastel aesthetic that makes “Strawberry Mansion” look and feel as though SMOSH took a detour into the avant-garde, Audley and Birney’s latest film is a reminder that cinema is still brimming with creativity. 

In order to understand “Strawberry Mansion,” it might be worth delving into the filmmakers’ histories. Kentucker Audley, raised in Lexington, Kentucky, is a self-proclaimed “filmmaker, film programmer, actor, and movies hat salesman,” according to his website. He also founded NoBudge, a streaming service devoted to micro-budget films and DIY filmmaking. His roots are indie filmmaking, his passion is filmmaking and his concern is originality. Albert Birney, on the other hand, is most famous for turning his popular Vine series about a gorilla into a feature film, “Sylvio,” that landed on The New Yorker’s list of top ten films in 2017. 

Audley and Birney have been around for a while. “Strawberry Mansion” shows this. With its impressive framing, attention to detail, strong worldbuilding and inventive storylines, it becomes entirely evident that “Strawberry Mansion” is a project helmed by passionate filmmakers who know their way around the medium. They have a perfervid dedication to realizing their zany vision of a near-future where capitalism has invaded people’s subconscious by allowing corporations to implant subliminal advertising in their dreams.

The film follows James Preble, played by Audley himself, as he travels to an aging artist’s home to audit the backlog of VHS-taped dreams on which she’s been evading taxes. Things are a bit off from the moment Preble gets there, and the film only gets weirder as its runtime extends. 

The first thing Arabella “Bella” Isadora (Penny Fuller), the house’s sole resident and dream tax evader, does upon receiving Preble’s knocks on her door is shove a cone of ice cream in his face and forcefully instruct him to lick it. It’s at this exact moment that the “Strawberry Mansion” title card commandeers the screen in bold red font, and the viewer is given the message that they’re in for a wild ride. 

It’s also around this time that things start getting weird for Preble. First he hears a fly speak to him and dismisses it as a hallucination, then he begins having a series of beautiful dreams and dreadful nightmares that make him question whether or not he is dreaming. Then, when Bella suddenly passes away, he finds out the world’s biggest companies are implanting ads meant to trigger people into buying specific products upon waking up, throwing him into a full-blown capitalist conspiracy.

Knowing too much, Preble is knocked out and left to die in a burning house, with the rest — and majority — of the film trading the real world for the dreams he has during his unconscious state. It’s this part of the film that shows off Audley and Birney’s immense imagination as storytellers, as they set Preble in all sorts of crazy scenarios. Preble has to captain a ship, and later a submarine, decked by mousepeople. In another surreal string of moments, Preble is captured by a blue demon (Birney) who simply goes about completing household tasks, like cleaning the dishes and staring at the clock, while Preble is stuck in shackles in the corner of the demon’s surprisingly neat house. It’s obvious no one’s dreams are this bizarre, but the endearing degree of play Audley and Birney pour into the idea that people’s thoughts are rendered illogical in the dream-world holds a certain magic that has rarely graced the silver screen in years past. 

The plot is illogical, but who really cares. “Strawberry Mansion” — with all its faults, which can be forgiven due to the film’s dream-centric narrative — remains a film full of hope and optimism that shows audiences they can still enjoy a load of silliness in cinemas. It’s a film brimming with bizarre ideas meant to entertain viewers by assuming the screen at the front of a dark screening room is the perfect vessel to project the dreams of those who visit said screening rooms, arguing more movies and more cinemas should embrace the weird — because it’s far more engaging to see a frog play a saxophone than watch Winston Churchill deliver the same speech through a different actor every year.

Audley and Birney’s “Strawberry Mansion” embraces the allure of surrendering one’s mind to the fantasies of the silver screen. As such, it will be remembered as a daring film of fun and flair that will inspire those whose eyeballs experienced its whimsy for years to come.

Contact Nicolas Pedrero-Setzer at [email protected]