If nothing is certain in life but death and taxes, James Preble (Kentucker Audley) can be counted on to find all forms of income in your sleep in “Strawberry Mansion,” Audley and Albert Birney’s inventive second feature collaboration in which attention is a commodity that can be itemized. A loyal soldier for the government for 15 years tasked with investigating people’s dreams, you wonder what costs these audits have had on him when Preble’s only friend Buddy (Linas Phillips) seems to appear when he shuts his own eyelids and, surely after visiting plenty of eccentrics in his line of work, is hardly fazed upon arriving at the film’s strange titular estate, asked by its owner Sarabella Isidore (Penny Fuller) to take a lick of ice cream before stepping inside.
“I’ve got to admit, there’s a lot more here than I was anticipating,” Preble says, referring to the 2000-plus recordings of dreams that everyone is bound to keep rather than the handful that Isidore appears to be at first, and it soon becomes clear he doesn’t even know the half of it as Audley and Birney unearth an endearing romance between lost souls. Too original for any direct comparison yet reminding a bit of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” in terms of execution, “Strawberry Mansion” follows the worse-for-wear Preble into the recesses of Sarabella’s subconscious when his audit requires investigating her entire history of dreams, bringing him into contact with a younger version of Bella (Grace Glowicki) he can’t help but be bewitched by as he’s looking for deductions.
The same could be said for “Strawberry Mansion” as a whole when the filmmakers embraces a handmade analog aesthetic that’s far from twee when it’s so fully realized, from the piles of VHS cassettes used to capture dreams to the fly, conveyed with a kaleidoscopic lens, that insists to Preble he’s in jeopardy, unsure whether he’s in a dream or not. Audley and Birney aren’t shy about confusing the issue, with an ethereal score from Dan Deacon and Becca Morrin’s fantastical production design apt to lull one into ecstasy even when Preble is on firm footing. But they take audiences to an even more interesting places than what the eye can see as “Strawberry Mansion” uses the premise of Preble falling for a woman who exists in different forms physically and psychologically to interesting ends and engages in an even more provocative consideration of the mind when the accountant starts to suspect that Buddy may only hang around in his head to hawk products, a fear exacerbated by the sudden appearance of Sarabella’s son Peter (Reed Birney), an ad exec suspiciously concerned about his mother’s affairs.
The adventurous spirit that courses through “Strawberry Mansion” as Preble tries to get the the bottom of things is more than enough to keep one engaged, but it reaches another level in exploring how much of our thoughts are our own with all the mysterious forces now out there fighting for one’s attention, brilliantly untangling complicated notions about the subconscious in direct emotional appeals to the heart. For a story which sees its central character searching for items of worth in the mind, “Strawberry Mansion” is bound to stay there rent-free.