Sundance Review: Strawberry Mansion
Every year, a movie arrives in the wintry peaks of Park City as though it were tailor-made in a workshop for the Sundance Film Festival - for better and for worse. Despite 2021's pivot-to-video, old traditions die hard. And this year, Strawberry Mansion, the second collaboration from co-directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley, is that movie. Audley plays James, a dream auditor in the near future when dreams are taxed, ad-men invade our sub-consciousness, and the external reality bleeds the sub-cranial one. It’s a feast of visual and philosophical quirk, and though its indulgences can take away from its power at times, Mansion brings surprising power and resonance with a low-fi style.
Audley and Birney’s film will hook you immediately with its overwhelming but immaculate composition. In building a new world, the pair create two distinct visions: the reality of the near future and the dream-state that transcends time. They save their most audacious visual gags for sleep, grounding their waking world of 2035 in a setting that mostly resembles 2021. James arrives at the mythical mansion of an older woman who hasn’t paid dream taxes in half a century, and it’s the small details in the background that ground us in this reality. As the dream world swerves increasingly off the rails, this wise decision helps anchor Strawberry Mansion.
The one-line premise is enough plot to get the gist - and anyway, some of the twists and turns are better left for the moment. Suffice to say that Mansion spends too much time in the dream-world, a wink-and-a-nudge creation that tries too hard to evoke a reaction similar to Inception (“that’s totally what dreams are like!”). Frogs playing the saxophone; sailors with human bodies and mice heads; a blue demon living in a secluded cabin. These things pop up out of nowhere, and Mansion seems laser-focused on getting you to say “that’s wacky!” when their main characters’ eyes are closed.
It’s unfortunate, because Audley, Penny Fuller, and Grace Glowicki give level-headed performances, reeling in our intrigue and empathy with surprising immediacy considering the absurd plot. If Mansion’s dream sequences were more than tenuously tethered to the relationships of its reality, it would have been more touching. Audley and Birney show off the virtuosity of indie technicians working at the highest level, and they weaponize ambiguity to great impact. And the mystical synth score from Dan Deacon, though perhaps a bit over-used, traverses both worlds well.
Mansion finishes on a gorgeous, graceful note, full at once of love and loss; promise and nostalgia. It makes you wonder what-if, but I’d rather focus on what-was - there’s plenty of singular moments and pieces of Strawberry Mansion. Even if it doesn’t fully come together, it remains an exciting entry in this year’s Sundance.