ICYMI 2022: Strawberry Mansion

As 2022 draws to a close, we’re taking a moment to look back at the year in film: the best of what we all saw, and the best of the films that might not have made it on your radar. Follow our coverage here!

“Do you believe that your dreams are your own?”

Whimsy is a tricky thing to navigate. Improperly calibrated, it can be cloying or twee. Something intended as sweet can instead come across as sappy. One 2022 release that gets the balance right is Strawberry Mansion, the second feature from the writer-director team behind 2017’s similarly sincere Sylvio (newly released on Blu-ray from Music Box Selects). At a time when hardened cynicism feels like the only sensible defense against falling into despair over the grim state of the world, a film as unapologetically strange and imaginative as this is a welcome oasis.

Made on a budget of $200,000, Strawberry Mansion required all the ingenuity and creativity co-directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley could bring to bear, as evidenced by the tweet thread Birney posted in October detailing how they achieved some of its effects in a way that didn’t break the bank. This started with the creation of the world dream auditor James Preble (played by Audley) lives in. The year is 2035 and everyone pays taxes on the things they dream about, a process regulated by the monitors at their bedside. What people don’t realize is they’re also being marketed to in their sleep, and these nocturnal commercials subconsciously affect the decisions they make during their waking hours.

This is certainly true for Preble, whose Hawaiian shirt-wearing “Buddy” (Linas Phillips, Birney and Audley’s script consultant and a filmmaker in his own right) appears to him in the Pepto-Bismol-pink room he dreams about every night, hawking some product he desperately “needs.” That all changes, however, when Preble is assigned to audit free-spirited artist Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller, a film and television vet whose screen credits stretch back six-plus decades), who invites him to stay at her home since she has a backlog of some 2000+ videotapes for him to scan through. (Seems she hasn’t kept up with the times or the technology, which suits her artistic temperament just fine.)

Getting down to the work at hand, Preble is charmed by Bella’s idiosyncratic dreams (in which her younger self is played by Grace Glowicki) and her laid-back approach to life. Theirs is not to be a Harold and Maude-style May/December romance, however, as Bella dies before Preble can complete his audit – but not before she passes on a videotape containing a particularly resonant dream that shows how deeply connected the two of them really are. The wistful fable Birney and Audley have been telling up to that point then takes a sinister turn with the introduction of Bella’s estranged son Peter (Reed Birney, Albert’s uncle), a big wheel in the dream marketing game who seeks to erase all traces of his mother’s eccentricities.

One thing that stands out about Strawberry Mansion is the absolute sincerity of its performances.  There’s not a single wink or raised eyebrow from anyone in the cast. Even the antagonists (Peter is accompanied by his equally unpleasant wife and son, who unceremoniously set about ransacking Bella’s effects) are presented in straightforward fashion – no need to twirl a metaphorical mustache when you can let loose with a howl in the protagonist’s fevered imagination. Meanwhile, Preble transitions from a mild-mannered government functionary to the hero of his own story without making a single quip or wisecrack. Anything like that would shatter the delicate atmosphere Birney and Audley maintain from the first frame to the last.

With its esoteric dream logic, Strawberry Mansion runs the risk of alienating as many viewers as it attracts, but those willing to go off the beaten path will find much to appreciate on Preble’s journey of self-discovery. From the meticulous set and production design to Tyler Davis’s glowing cinematography to Dan Deacon’s gorgeous score, it’s a film that’s easy to get lost in and invites multiple viewings. What is most appealing about it, though, is its unwavering spirit of positivity and the belief that love can conquer all if you fight for it – that our dreams are our own.

“Strawberry Mansion” is streaming on Mubi and is available to rent or purchase.

Craig J. Clark watches a lot of movies. He started watching them in New Jersey, where he was born and raised, and has continued to watch them in Bloomington, Indiana, where he moved in 2007. In addition to his writing for Crooked Marquee, Craig also contributes the monthly Full Moon Features column to Werewolf News. He is not a werewolf himself (or so he says).

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