TK
I want a dream audit. Courtesy of SIFF

It's been more than a year since I entered a movie theater. In that time, I perfected my home "theater" set-up, watching everything from Cassavetes to Godzilla vs. Kong on my laptop and not really missing the çīñêmå. Strawberry Mansion flipped all that for me.

While viewing the very independent, very homegrown feature from co-writers and co-directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney, I longed for a serenely cool theater filled with other (probably very stoned) moviegoers. The film is gentle and kooky, set in a dystopic future that aesthetically borrows from the '80s. Demons, Nick Cave-like creatures, VHS tapes, buckets of fried chicken, and fedora hats populate the film that takes its time to unspool before you. It's a world I felt like would be best experienced communally, in the dark church of the theater.

BUT! Strawberry Mansion makes delightful home viewing too. It follows James Preble (Audley), a lonely government "dream auditor" in 2035 tasked with going through other people's dreams and taxing them. We meet him in the middle of an uncomfortable dream of his own where he's trapped in a pink room and aggressively marketed fried chicken by an annoying dream visitor.

When he awakes, he's assigned to audit the dreams of an eccentric older woman named Bella (Penny Fuller) who has avoided paying taxes for decades and lives in a strawberry mansion (wink) with her pet turtle, Sugarbaby. Preble soon gets lost in the thousands of VHS tapes that hold Bella's dreams and memories, slowly falling in love with the younger version of herself (played by Grace Glowicki), who acts as his guide.

Bella's dreams are fantastical and otherworldly, imbued with a love and curiosity absent in his own dry life. While immersed in her thoughts, Preble discovers that brands and labels are blocked out from her recordings, courtesy of a special dreaming device she developed with her husband.

After the real-life Bella dies and her evil son (Peter Bloom) comes to reclaim the mansion, the film takes an unexpected turn from light twee into an otherworldly and rather dark exploration of consumerism. Bound up in that is what Audley calls a "metaphysical love story" that crosses time, space, and realities with Preble at its imperiled center. If it sounds like a headfuck, it definitely is. Dream logic has no logic but its own, after all.

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Shot on video and transferred to 16mm, the low-budget Strawberry Mansion folds in practical effects, meticulous sets, and weirdo props in place of any of the expensive effects that are crammed into big blockbusters. That's not always to the film's detriment. A blue demon character that pops up at the end has a genuinely frightening face (a la that zombie bear from Annihilation and made by Clockwork Creatures), but its bodysuit grounds the creature in the more whimsical tone of the movie. It's weirdly playful and nonsensical.

Strawberry Mansion is a lovingly analog project where plot takes a back seat to exploration and wonder, going off on side tangents that are just as—if not more—enjoyable than the main thrust of the film. I wish I could have seen it in theaters, but it also makes for perfect viewing on a warm spring evening.

Read more about our top SIFF recommendations here. The digital fest runs through April 18.