Strawberry Mansion (2021, Albert Birney & Kentucker Audley)

It was a twitter post by director/star Kentucker Audley which first alerted me to the online nature of Sundance this year, both that he had a cool-sounding new movie, and that ordinary punters like myself could watch its premiere for a reasonable cost, so I felt I owed it to him to watch this… though at this point in the late afternoon, an overall Sundance skepticism had set in, and I’d lost my hopes that it would be great. Thankfully, it was great, or at least good enough to seem great after Mayday – a hundred times wackier than that movie, beautifully imaginative and very fun to watch.

A year-2035 dream auditor has to visit an offline old woman who still stores her dreams on analog tape, to calculate how much she owes in taxes based on the objects her subconscious summons – or how much her estate owes, since she passes away while he’s on the job. Her VHS dreams start bleeding into his own life, and are more pure than the auditor’s own dreams. This is because she knows that companies beam advertisements into dreams, and has developed a protective helmet as an ad-blocker.

The woman knows about the dream-ads because her son is in charge of the ad agency, and when he arrives after her death he determines that the auditor knows too much, and tries to burn him alive in mom’s pink house to destroy all evidence. Asleep in the flames, he bonds with a young dream-Bella on a small island, making this my second movie in a row about an island-bound dreamer needing to awaken to their dangerous real life. Scenes from earlier that felt randomly eccentric return as sense warnings. Despite his meaningless job working for the man, the auditor deserves happiness because he stops to save a pet turtle on his way out of the burning house.

Tyler Davis’s Vanity Fair review is good at noting what makes this movie special, while accidentally summarizing my own Sundance experience:

Like Ham On Rye, another recent fantastical low-budget film, Strawberry Mansion puts modern dread at the fore through a series of dynamic set pieces that reveal just how many obstacles are placed between us and our inner lives … The boundaries between our imagined lives and the ones we try to lead in the midst of never ending sales pitches has thinned to a sliver … It’s easy to mistake Strawberry Mansion for a simple parable about advertising and the federal government. But ultimately, it’s a strange film about art and its conditions … Increasingly, as we’re asked to look at more and more yet with less and less of our minds activated, all the watching becomes unbearable. Strawberry Mansion takes a wild swing at yanking its protagonist—and us—out of this predicament.

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