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Strawberry Mansion
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by Jay Seaver

"An unusual love story under an eccentric satire."
4 stars

SCREENED VIA INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL BOSTON 2021: If "Strawberry Mansion" is not specifically what the average movie with deadpan surrealism and kitchen-table production design is going for, it is nevertheless one of the best recent examples of such things. It's lo-fi sci-fi that takes its silliness seriously, having fun with its clever story but seldom feeling like the filmmakers are amusing themselves at the expense of the audience.

It's the mid-2030s, and dreams are routinely recorded so that they can be taxed. James Preble (Kentucker Audley) is one of the people who audits those dreams, and his latest assignment is Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), an elderly artist who lives in a remote red house, and it turns out she's the sort of eccentric who never completed the mandatory upgrade to Airstick, leaving Preble with two thousand VHS tapes to go through. It could be worse; Bella's dreams are generally pleasant and whimsical, and her self-image in them (Grace Glowicki) is young and cute. It's initially a welcome distraction from Preble's feelings that something is off about his own dreams, but soon he's finding peculiar overlaps.

Filmmakers Kentucker Audler and Albert Birney drop their viewers into their weird future right away, starting off in Preble's dreams which more than hint about some of where the story will go. Many filmmakers playing with dreams will attempt to start with a fake-out, but Audley & Birney are not actually interested in fooling their audience or sending them down blind alleys. There will be a point when things get strange and they maybe lose track of the world they've created - the finale owes a bit to <I>Inception</I>'s multiple time-scales and stretches them right to the breaking point, showing that for however much Nolan's precision may be a bit cold, it can be useful - but it doesn't become a puzzle first and foremost, even if the audience is given the chance to figure out what certain symbols and memories may mean.

Instead, it's a fascinating love story. A romance between Preble and Bella is not entirely impossible, although the age difference would certainly be a major obstacle, but a viewer may wonder if Preble can imagine love as something else. There's just enough in common between Penny Fuller's performance and that of Grace Glowicki that one can see how Preble connects them, and Audley does good work in making Preble a legitimately starchy civil servant who can nevertheless come to appreciate Bella's creative and eccentric bent rather than just someone who has been repressing a true self. What's more fascinating is the way the filmmakers show Preble falling in love with a combination of Bellas - who she is now, who she remembers being, her own fantasies, and his own - and lets them run together rather than carefully pulling them apart. Much of the "Bella" in the film's latter half is in Preble's dreams (though it's easy to fall into the trap of only treating it as a psychic or spiritual connection), and chasing that can be destructive, but even with our dreams laid bare for others to see, we can't not do that. It's how our brains work.

Much of this happens in dreams, although it's not like Preble's real world is any less surreal. As mentioned, it's a world constructed out of chunky analog tech, and in some ways it can't help but be kind of ostentatiously cheap-looking, but the filmmakers are determined not to wink at the audience; characters sell things as weird and inconvenient in the way that real life is. The real world is an effortless sort of hodgepodge of low-tech and grotesque, and while the dreams are flights of fancy, they're seldom more elaborate than real life; Preble's interior life just isn't as rich as it could be until he meets Bella, and Bella's feel like her crowded house, indicating few regrets.

Birney and Audley come close to overstaying their welcome as the film moves through its final stretch, but this is the sort of movie that usually reaches that point once it gets past short length. It's a nifty fantasy whose obvious satire works because of how warmly unconventional the underlying relationship is.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=34050&reviewer=371
originally posted: 06/05/21 21:53:43
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