Strawberry Mansion is a vision still worth experiencing, even as its muddled with an ill-considered screenplay rife with tired twee tropes.
In 2017, Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney released Sylvio into the world. A 16mm Factory 25 feature based off of a series of vines, the film followed a Gorilla puppeteer as he finds success (and mild exploitation) on a public access television station in desperate need of a ratings boost. This premise — coupled with a DIY approach to costuming and set design — is the sort that likely set off alarms among those who recoil from anything that smells twee, but those that embraced the ape were rewarded with a triumphant work of independent cinema; an authentically gentle ode to non-commercial artistry buoyed by ingenious lead performances from Sylvio Bernardi and Audley himself.
Now, the duo return with a second feature (each have their own robust filmography apart from the other, both branching into solo directing, acting, writing, editing) and a high profile premiere slot at Sundance. This new film, the evocatively titled Strawberry Mansion, has not only been afforded more visibility than Sylvio, but also a larger budget (that film was likely one of the last to effectively work Kickstarter) that’s been poured into production design. Necessary, as Strawberry Mansion takes Birney and Audley into Very High Concept territory, audaciously setting out to create an expansive fantasy adventure on a modest budget (likely larger than Sylvio’s, though still in the micro range). Audley takes the lead here as a man who audits dreams, an apparently soul-deadening occupation necessitated by technology that allows the human mind to be plagued by advertisements as it dreams. Playing off the likes of Terry Gilliam and Michel Gondry, Strawberry Mansion sees its dream auditor encounter a mysterious woman who threatens to wake him up to the conspiracy of their world, setting him off on a loopy quest to reclaim his dreams and find true love.
Undoubtedly another premise that scans as too cute on paper, but unlike their last film, Birney and Audley can’t manage to veer away from the considerable pitfalls of what they have imagined and the influences they draw upon. It must be said that Kentucker Audley is one of American cinema’s greatest contemporary actors, and without the casual understatement of his performance, Strawberry Mansion might be entirely lost, but what he can salvage through his presence fails to outweigh the tedium of their Brazil-esque narrative. The casual sexism of Gilliam’s sci-fi epic is paralleled here in the screenplay’s focus on an elusive dream girl, a MacGuffin in the form of actress Grace Glowicki (doing what she can) who inspires Audley to live for the moment or whatever. These are tired tropes made all the more frustrating by the fact that Strawberry Mansion is otherwise fairly appealing, featuring an expectedly excellent Dan Deacon score, striking, practical set design, and playful uses of in-camera effects and stop motion. Though frustrating, Audley and Birney’s vision is ultimately still worth experiencing, even if they’ve muddled it with an ill-considered screenplay.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.