Some filmmakers do their best work when they are given the opportunity to be as weird as they desire. Kentucker Audley is one such filmmaker, someone whose body of work as both an actor and director may not be particularly well-known outside of a niche group of devotees, but who has proven himself worthy of an immense amount of acclaim for a number of reasons. Not only is he one of the foremost champions for independent cinema (with the platforms he has created to promote the work of up-and-coming storytellers being truly invaluable), but he’s a terrific director in his own right. Previously, he was known for more loosely-structured comedies that tend to meander, embodying a kind of otherworldly absurdity that has become a recent element in a lot of contemporary independent filmmaking. However, his most recent effort is a radical departure, and is the closest he has come to making a film that feels like it has the potential to lead to a breakthrough moment for him, as well as co-director Albert Birney, with whom he has collaborated several times as both an actor and director. Strawberry Mansion is one of the year’s most compelling projects, a meaningful philosophical odyssey that layers on many different ideas into an already bold premise, which is beautifully brought to life but a terrific cast, and a pair of directors who are propelled by the desire to make something unique, proving to be far more interesting than many would assume based on a cursory glance at their work, which had not yet reached the impossibly high peak that was established here, in a film that is undoubtedly going to be an extraordinary experience for anyone who stumbles across it in the coming years, by which point the directors will hopefully have risen in stature to having much wider popularity.
In a cinematic landscape where many of us lament on the supposed lack of originality in mainstream cinema, independent film has always been the most adequate remedy. Whether reconfiguring classic film structures into new, experimental ways of storytelling, or doing something that actively subverts conventions, many of these filmmakers take on some extraordinarily complex techniques in bringing their ambitious stories to life. Strawberry Mansion itself is a film bursting with audacity – it is equally a romantic comedy as it is an existential drama and deeply compelling science fiction film, and has a wealth of other intriguing ideas peppered throughout. This is the kind of film that is impossible to classify under a particular genre, and it instead works best as something that is experienced rather than being explained. Sometimes, the more one tries to say about a piece of art, the less meaning it has, which is certainly the approach that one needs to take when navigating the very strange but captivating world in which Audley and Birney were structuring their story. It makes for an extraordinarily compelling and deeply meaningful film that feels genuinely unique, both in its visual style and narrative approach, which is easily appreciated if you have the ability to not take everything at face value, and instead focus on the overall experience rather than being dedicated to finding an explanation to every small detail, which is ultimately an approach that may not work for those expecting a more straightforward narrative. This is a film that embodies the idea of pure surrealism, and through the process of exploring this futuristic world, the directors are able to make one of the most profound and insightful meditations on existence we’ve seen in recent years.
Unfortunately, there is a preconceived notion that a science fiction film can only be successful if it is filled to the brim with the most ambitious, eye-catching imagery imaginable, at least from a modern perspective where technology makes it a foregone conclusion that an entry into the genre will be striving to be at least partially impressive in terms of its visual landscape. Strawberry Mansion is, by all accounts, a film that works precisely because it goes against the grain in virtually every way, including in the execution of its bold ideas. The aesthetics of this film are far more simple than we’d expect from a contemporary science fiction film, but this does not mean that they are any less impressive. This is a film that places focus on the more abstract ideas that circulate around its story, rather than the actual imagery, which is kept extraordinarily simple. The emphasis is placed on the dreamlike quality of the narrative, which is represented in the appearance of the film – simple, soft images that remind us of the ethereal wisps of our imagination abound, and we see the directors taking a truly captivating approach in which the smaller budget with which they were working was not a limitation, but rather a challenge to see how far they could take us into their unique and precise vision without making it clear that this was a slightly smaller film in terms of its resources. There are several moments that feel truly magical, and the directors lean into the more abstract side of the story in their approach to constructing these images, which feel thorough and meaningful, and most importantly plucked from a place of genuine enthusiasm for the subject matter, which is often surprisingly rare in such films, where the concept is more important than the message, something that Audley and Birney actively work against here, turning Strawberry Mansion into one of the most poignant explorations of deeper themes we’ve seen recently.
To fully grasp the scope and impact of this film, the viewer has to suspend all disbelief – in addition to the simplicity of the plot, the film proves that science fiction does not need to provide answers or offer elaborate explanations in order to be considered successful, and that it is more than appropriate to have a film that is openly and proudly bizarre, simply for the sake of telling a story that it knows is going to be more effective with such an abstract approach. We’re given enough contextual clues and expositionary discussion to comfortable situate ourseves within this world, so it is never a case of needing to fill in the gaps – essentially, there is nothing that needs to be shaded in or made any more nuanced, since the entire film exists on a particularly surreal plain of existence, where one moment leads into another without any logical need for context, and by the time the boundary between fiction and reality (or as close as this speculative film can be considered to be set in a plausible version of our world) begin to blur, we have already been suitably enraptured by this film, which is very much a product of immense ambition and narrative anarchy, where the directors clearly didn’t construct the film to make sense, but rather to be built on genuine emotions and a story that may not make sense in isolation or from a distance, which which seems perfectly logical once we are immersed in this version of the world, which is so beautifully composed by Audley and Birney, who are thoroughly committed to the process of telling this story and making it feel genuinely insightful, even at its most abstract.
Strawberry Mansion is a film as ambitious and peculiar as its title, and it makes that abundantly clear from the very first enigmatic moments. It’s a charming film, but one that takes some time to grow accustomed to. It’s not difficult to understand why it has been flying under the radar so far, since it’s not a particularly easy film to market, let alone describe in a way that captures the essence of the story. However, once you take the leap and immerse yourself in this world, there are few more thoroughly compelling experiences. Its a film very much defined by its humour and sense of absurdity, which is undercut by a bold and ambitious storyline that draws on the more melancholic side of these characters, presenting a complex and invigorating story of individuality and identity in a world that is rapidly shifting. It may be set in the future, but the themes being explored here are very much resonant to the modern state of the world – the philosophical nuances, the deeply detailed sense of humour and the overall experience of creating a dreamlike world where anything is possible, makes Strawberry Mansion one of the most wildly inventive and deeply sentimental science fiction films of recent years, and a work that is going to only age better as time goes on, since its the kind of film that isn’t announced but rather discovered, the optimal approach to an encounter with this charming and insightful glimpse into the future, and the many different concepts that we imagine will stem from the inevitable march of time.