It’s a popular conception that there’s nothing more boring than hearing about other people’s dreams, which by rights should make James Preble — the meek, cutely mustachioed hero of “Strawberry Mansion” — the unfortunate owner of the world’s dullest job: He’s a tax auditor who has to scan his clients’ recorded dreams for hidden expenses. This makes a rough kind of sense in Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney’s endearingly cash-strapped sci-fi fantasia, set in a 2035 of papier-mâché futurism and defiant analog aesthetics — or rather, its senselessness is supported by the film’s fuzzy, absurd world-building.
Within its slight, rickety framework, however, “Strawberry Mansion” attempts to do rather a lot, shifting from prankish surrealist farce to fey, across-time love story, sometimes giving way to an anti-capitalist satire directed very much at the present moment. If it doesn’t really stick to any one order of business for long, instead skittering distractedly between bright ideas and brighter images, such is the very nature of dreams. Far closer to the irrational disorder of “The Science of Sleep” than the clinical architecture of “Inception” in its exploration of where we go when we shut our eyes, Audley and Birney’s film will enthrall as many as it irritates, with the numbers likely to remain small on either side following its premiere in Sundance’s NEXT strand.
Not that you’d expect anything conventionally distributor-minded from Audley, the offbeat actor-filmmaker also known as the man behind free microbudget streaming platform NoBudge. “Strawberry Mansion” wears its mend-and-make-do spirit proudly, beginning with its unusual, resourceful shooting style: Shot digitally but transferred to 16mm after editing, the film cheerfully bears the blown-out light and smeary film grain of both processes.
That feels entirely apt for a scrapbooked vision of the near future, compiled by production designer Becca Brooks Morrin and costume designer Mack Reyes from jumbled 20th-century decades of fashion and industrial design: For starters, Preble’s tweedy 1950s garb clashes with the 1980s videocassettes through which he navigates others’ dreams. Only that outlandish capability situates these proceedings far from now; otherwise, it’s as if an atom bomb has wiped all post-internet technology off the face of the earth.
Audley himself plays Preble, a mournful-looking bachelor with little life outside work — beyond solitary drive-thru binges on grimly processed fried chicken that also, tellingly, features heavily in his dreams. He’s summoned to the rural upstate home of the elderly Bella (Penny Fuller), a cheerful eccentric who’s several decades behind on her dream taxes. Reluctantly accepting her invitation to stay several days, he sets about the mammoth task of entering her library of recorded dreams, picking out which of her unconscious thoughts have quite literally been living rent-free in her head. In the process, however, he loses his heart to Bella’s winsome younger self (Grace Glowicki), finding the happiness that has long eluded him in a dreamscape that isn’t even his own.
It’s a complicated situation that doesn’t get any less so when other authorities turn out to have designs on Bella’s antiquated archive — which has the potential to expose a creepy corporate conspiracy that allows aggressive marketing to invade even the non-waking lives of the general public. It’s easy to imagine a sleek episode of “Black Mirror” running riot with the concept of dream advertising as a paranoid allegory for our contemporary age of data-sharing and its eerie, invasive consequences. Audley and Birney’s loosey-goosey script isn’t blinkered to these implications, but leaves the viewer to unpick them while it pursues its own romantic reverie.
Repeatedly separated by time and space and interdimensional oceans, Preble and Bella are locked in a star-crossed chase that eventually bends back to their original meeting — which, it turns out, may have been a reunion instead. These developments demand a high tolerance for whimsy, particularly as the old Bella (played by Fuller with a wry, deadpan spaciness) recedes in favor of her younger, manic-pixie dreamself.
In Preble’s first interview with Bella, he asks what her profession is: Her garbled, circuitous answer takes several turns before arriving at the term “atmosphere creator,” to which Preble internally sighs before jotting down “artist.” The makers of “Strawberry Mansion,” it seems, could happily identify as either. Even as their film stretches its flights of fancy past breaking point, there are pleasures to be taken from the blithe, handmade execution of its vision, throwing everything in the pot from creaky animal puppetry to 8-bit effects. It’s a film with a perceptive understanding of how dreams work, in all their anarchic narrative structure and roundabout psycho-logic, and you don’t need any kind of high fantasy budget to achieve that. Who gave Disney the monopoly on manufacturing our dreams anyway?