Directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley don’t just buck contemporary filmmaking conventions in “Strawberry Mansion” — they dared to question and challenge them. And they’ve done so by harkening back to the experimental school of moviemaking, where no topic was too controversial to touch and a variety of visual techniques could be employed to tell a story.
Set in 2035, Audley (“Christmas, Again”) stars as dream auditor James Preble, working in a world where the surveillance state polices and taxes everything, including people’s dreams. One day he arrives at the home of Arabella (veteran actress Penny Fuller), an eccentric widow whose multi-answer response to his question of occupation he classifies as simply “artist.”
It appears that Bella, as she prefers to be called, has found a way to circumvent dream-monitoring by keeping them analog and transferring them via VHS tapes. To get inside them and compile his tally, “the Taxman,” as she calls him, dons an elaborate head contraption.
Through that, he encounters Bella’s dreams and falls for a younger Bella (Grace Glowicki). As Preble tags along her journey, which at some point intertwines with his own thoughts, a walking tree bush and a deep-voiced, toad-faced waiter in a red suit are among his many fantastical encounters.
Back in reality, he and the older Bella seem to grow close, with Preble envisioning her as her younger self the more they spend quality time together. As the older Bella, Fuller brings a lighthearted, Helen Mirren sexiness to her role, making a present-day romance with the younger Preble, egged on by her chemistry with Audley, quite plausible.
But when the worst comes to Bella, Preble is confronted by her estranged son Peter (Reed Birney, “Mass”), apparently a very powerful ad man who does not wish him well. Peter’s violent dismissal of Preble sends him on a search for Bella, in which he is boldly confronted with the danger ads pose on our dreams and imagination. The film’s creative and dramatic conclusion makes a bold statement about the power of dreams, passion, and love to conquer it all, even in the face of extreme adversity.
“Strawberry Mansion” dazzles most in its execution. In its own search for creativity and inspiration, the film leans into experimentation and whimsy. Tyler Davis’ cinematography more than stands out; it pops. Shooting digitally and then transferring the master to 16mm creates a unique aesthetic that almost serves as a visual time machine.
The film’s retro look echoes the longing for something pure that’s underscored in its narrative. There’s also a grounding to “Strawberry Mansion” — surprising, given its inclusion of a wolf and of man-size rats as sailors; Preble, even when he’s down, never loses sight of what’s important.
Birney and Audley had a measure of cult success with their acclaimed 2017 film “Sylvio” — and this one certainly isn’t pitched at a mainstream audience — but clearly they’re driven by something other than box-office receipts and the chance to direct a superhero movie. Whether working individually or together, both Birney and Audley seem driven to create work with a voice and a bite, and when everyone does finally catch up, “Strawberry Mansion” will be among the many films in their catalog for fans to devour and appreciate.
“Strawberry Mansion” opens in select U.S. theaters Friday and on-demand Feb. 25.