How you will feel about Strawberry Mansion will probably line up with your visceral reaction to the word ‘quirky’. If it has a positive connotation for you, then it’s likely that you’ll enjoy the third feature from directing team Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. If, on the other hand, you consider it an insult, than you might want to run for the hills before I even get to the plot summary…
In a vaguely-dystopian (yet candy-coloured) future, people are taxed on items that appear in their dreams. James Preble (Audley) is an auditor responsible for collecting taxes from those who haven’t paid up, like Bella (Penny Fuller), a – here comes that word again – quirky older woman who’s been hiding her dreams from the government by recording them on VHS. As staid jobsworth Preble sets about the laborious task of watching all two thousand of these tapes and working out Bella’s bill, he develops an unexpected fondness for her, and a crush on the younger self (Grace Glowicki) that stars in her dreams.
Bella has a secret to divulge that will turn his whole life upside down: a shady corporation is inserting adverts into people’s dreams, but she’s developed a helmet that works as a wearable adblocker, and makes her a threat to said corporation. That sets Preble and Bella (the younger version) off on a quest across various dreamworlds, battling demons and anthropomorphised pop-up ads, and – inevitably – falling in love.
So there is a plot, and there is a valid message (the invasiveness of capitalism is smothering us), and yet it never seems like either is anything but a flimsy excuse for something tangible to tie Audley and Birney’s visual flights of fancy together. There are frogs playing saxophones, humans turned into caterpillars and beetroots and blown up into blimps, rat sailors and grass monsters. Working with a shoestring indie budget, the effects needed to bring all of these wacky ideas to life look – by necessity – homemade and clunky. Audley and Birney have attempted to work these limitations to their advantage by making the unsophisticatedness of it all a feature, not a bug. As far as that goes, your mileage may vary.
Beyond the unusual look and the anti-capitalistic messaging, however, it’s hard to ignore that the essential narrative thrust here is age-old and deeply boring: free-spirited woman teaches tightly-wound man how to live. There’s no depth to any of the characterisation in this film; the humans don’t feel any more human than the saxophone-playing frogs. The cardboard quality of these protagonists is the prime reason why Strawberry Mansion rapidly becomes a chore to sit through. It’s really hard to care about a love story that’s so thinly derivative, and there’s really nothing else to Preble and Bella (both versions) but a mournful moustache and a dreamy eyed smile. However fantastical their adventures become, their essential emptiness underlines the movie’s own.
That might not have been such a glaring problem if this had been a short film, fifteen or twenty minutes in length. Bordering on ninety, however, the increasingly teetering pile of whimsy with so little grounding in humanity makes Strawberry Mansion a tedious, grating slog.