You don’t need a degree in film studies to make an educated guess about when a movie was made, or to at least place it within the right decade. It’s easy to recognize specific cinematic styles and themes from each decade of big-budget filmmaking, and it’s also fairly easy to date a movie based on its special effects. Innovative filmmakers have spent millions of dollars and years of their careers trying to make movies look “better” than those of yesteryear, particularly movies in the sci-fi, fantasy, action, and adventure genres. After all that work, it might seem counterintuitive for a filmmaker to purposely make a movie that looks like it was shot thirty or forty years ago. But co-writers and directors Albert Birney and Kentucker Audley did just that with their fantasy masterpiece Strawberry Mansion, a selection at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Strawberry Mansion fully embraces the visual style and effects of charming fantasy flicks from days past like The NeverEnding Story (1984) and Labyrinth (1986). It reminds us of a time when “special effects” and “set design” in a fantasy movie didn’t just mean CGI, bringing back fond memories of the worn-out VHS tapes that defined our idea of adventure.
The year is 2035. A shy dream auditor named James Preble (Kentucker Audley) is sent to the home of an eccentric elderly woman, Bella Isadora (Penny Fuller), to watch and assess thousands of video tapes that store Bella’s dreams from the last several decades. Preble works for the federal government in this futuristic American dystopia, a government that records and taxes the nightly dreams of its citizens. As Preble explores Bella’s subconscious mind through her dreams, he meets a younger version of the strange woman (Grace Glowicki) and discovers a rich fantasy world that, to the lonely auditor, is much more inviting than his own reality.
Knowing that they didn’t have the budget for a 21st century CGI fantasy, Birney and Audley sought to make a film that relied on artistry, imagination, charm, and nostalgia rather than modern special effects. The fact that they successfully created a film that looks exactly like a 1980s fantasy is much more impressive than any CGI effect in contemporary big-budget films. If you sat down to watch Strawberry Mansion knowing nothing about it, you’d have no idea that it was a 2021 release. According to the press notes, Birney and Audley shot Strawberry Mansion digitally and then transferred the edited version to 16mm, avoiding the logistical issues of 16mm filmmaking while giving the final version of their movie an authentic visual texture. They also added static noises from a record player to the soundtrack, making the film feel like the product of a different decade.
Birney and Audley set the stage for their tale with a grimy, grungy, and depressing set design that’s filled with decay. This strange futuristic world is certainly full of bright colors, like the yellow bucket of chicken that Preble orders from a drive through, but everything is dirty and muted. This particular version of the future is an ultra-depressing consumerist American nightmare that seems to have gotten stuck somewhere in the late 20th century. If Preble didn’t mention the year early on in the film, it would be difficult to tell that this is supposed to be a futuristic story. The “reality” space in Strawberry Mansion is defined by an aesthetic of outdated consumerist decay, creating a dystopian situation that feels a lot closer to home than the high-tech, post-apocalyptic future of other fantasy films.
The concept of a futuristic world in which the government records and taxes dreams is fresh and bursting with possibility. As Preble watches, audits, and becomes involved in Bella’s old dreams, a non-traditional plot starts brewing that, for lack of a better comparison, unfolds like a dream itself. The story meanders between Preble’s reality in 2035 and various dream spaces, and at times it’s difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, it’s also clear that we’re not supposed to follow the plot like a straight line. The storytelling isn’t careless, but rather, it’s a celebration of fantasy, imagination and escapism. You have to watch Strawberry Mansion with an open mind and let go of the need for straightforward storytelling.
The layered story of Strawberry Mansion takes us on a heartwarming dive into the psychology of a lonely man who has lost his sense of wonder and imagination to a bureaucratic job. In any other film, a story about a world-weary man who finds himself when he meets an eccentric woman would come across as predictable and trite. However, Strawberry Mansion is so full of heart, nostalgia, and charm that the story feels genuine. Plus, Preble is certainly not an arrogant, self-absorbed male protagonist who’s looking for a manic pixie dream girl to save him. He’s a humble, thoughtful, and timeless hero, and Audley excels at portraying him. Audley gives his character an awkward posture and an uncertain social presence, making it clear that Preble is both lost in thought and lost in the world.
When Preble enters Bella’s dreams, Birney and Audley pull the audience into a nostalgic fantasy world defined by obscure Muppet-like characters, stop-motion animation, and talking animals played by people in full costume. Strawberry Mansion pays tribute to VHS, campy special effects, and a specific era of low-budget sci-fi films that first sparked the imaginations of kids in the ‘80s and ‘90s. This isn’t a case of small-budget filmmakers just doing the best with what they had. In this case, Birney and Audley fully embraced the films that influenced them and artistically imitated those films in a masterful fantasy. Their work reminds us that modern special effects aren’t necessarily better; they’re just different. The visual style of Strawberry Mansion endows the film with a sense of wonder and adventure that you just can’t achieve with CGI, allowing Birney and Audley to tell a heartwarming story that they couldn’t tell any other way
Currently streaming during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.