INCEPTION, with all of its cold clinicality, gave us dream worlds with stoic leads, blue gray sharpness, and military precision. In STRAWBERRY MANSION, the world created by writers and directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney exists on the other end of the spectrum: soft, warm, emotionally entangled, and fully grounded in the clouds.
In the future, just up the road a little time wise, our dreams are recorded, uploaded on devices that resemble jump drives, and then taxed by the government. Preble (Audley), sort of an IRS agent of the subconscious, receives a letter from Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller), that requires his services to audit her dreamlives. “Bella” is a beautiful, aging oddball artist with no tax records, but she does a beautiful home, stuffed with personal artifacts and piles of VHS-recorded dreams. Wearing a viewer that looks like an underwater helmet crafted from a cardboard box, Preble begins sorting through her obsolete media, noting in the expanse of her dreams not only what needs payment, but the beguiling younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki).
Preble is a 1950s door-to-door salesman; buttoned-up, tightly groomed, the straight man with a little waver once he finds his sea legs. The oddness of other people’s dreams is something he accepts easily – it’s all business here, ma’am. As he dutifully audits like the taxman he is, his gentleness is ever present; with present-day Bella, with her pet turtle, with himself. We’ve already seen Preble’s own dream world — confined to a single room, Pepto-pink, flat, starring a solitary friend who shows up with Preble’s favorite soft drink and fried chicken like a fast food fairy. Why are Bella’s dreams so different? They’re wide open and verdant, full of figures and phantoms that interact with her. Before long, her dream co-stars start communicating with Preble directly – as does young Bella herself.
STRAWBERRY MANSION gave me a lot that I wasn’t expecting. There’s a feeling of sheer delight that crept up on me several times. I wasn’t planning on being moved to happy tears more than once, either. I’m a soft touch, no doubt, but the scope and scale of the romance was so tender and unexpected that it had me — me! — rooting for a happy ending. I’m a total mark when it comes to love found, lost, and found again — I admit it. Add in the scope of eternity, both consciously and subconsciously? Those are stakes.
Between moss-covered suitors and the glitter of unspooled VHS tapes, there are nightmares to navigate for Preble too. Bella’s adult son and his family are more monstrous than the blue-bearded skullface demon that holds her hostage in one dark series of dreams. Melding the worlds of the asleep and the awake against an enemy feels like A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET, with touches of Sesame Street. Even the fear has edges of unreality, like waking up from a sweating, twitching nightmare and thinking, “Was I really so afraid of that?”
Movies that center on dreams have an uphill battle to climb from the jump. Dreams are personal, even solitary by nature – they exist in your brain just for you, conjured and remixed by your subconscious and that spicy dinner you had the night before. There isn’t anything more singular and personal, except for maybe the final internal moments before death. Movies that struggle to nail down the oxymoron of dream logic don’t always gel for me. I cringe when I see a movie overreaching for the strange only to illustrate the point that hey, dreams are strange. When there’s a Mad Libs of visuals it feels cheap, desperate. But here, within the walls of STRAWBERRY MANSION, those touches click into a place of surreal believability, and finish comedic and charming. The archaic look and futuristic story make every detail matter. Present Day Bella calls herself an “atmosphere creator,” but Audley and Birney share that title with her.
There’s ice cream on the title card of STRAWBERRY MANSION. Bella, on their first meeting, poses a riddle and a request to Preble before she’ll allow him into her home — lick this ice cream cone, and then you can start your work. After a couple polite refusals, Preble, knowing there’s a job to be done, accepts both her eccentricity and her sugary request. The score swells and pink neon tells us the name of the film. It’s a Moment. Other than this ice cream and the hearts of the antagonists, there isn’t much cold to be found here. STRAWBERRY MANSION is warm, pink, spun sugar on celluloid; cotton candy that’s freshly twisted onto a paper cone. Put it against your tongue, let it dissolve, and enjoy the sweetness.