In sci-fi movies, the future often looks like a generic kitchen remodel—all with burnished steel and minimalist lines. Not with me Strawberry Villa, Kentucker Audley and Albertbirney’s film about a dystopian tomorrow where even dreams were monetized. Even though it’s set in 2035, Strawberry Villa has a charming handcrafted aesthetic, recreating his futuristic world of crochet and cardboard and meter by meter VHS tape. That, of course, speaks to the low-budget origins of the project. But it’s also consistent with its anti-corporate mentality, a fairytale celebration of the imagination unencumbered by brand and consumer culture.
That do-it-yourself philosophy is to be expected from Audley, who has been a fixture in micro-budget, mumblecore-leaning American films since the early 2000s. Here, director, writer and actor James Preble plays an undeniable cog in a government machine that requires citizens to plug into a device that records their dreams and analyzes them for tax purposes. One day he is sent to test Bella (Penny Fuller), an aging multimedia artist who has figured out how to bypass dream taxes with a helmet that records her subliminal visions on VHS tape. Faced with the overwhelming task of combing through decades of videos, Preble settles into Bella’s guest room and prepares to stay for a while. But the longer he visits her, the more he converts to Bella’s anti-surveillance worldview — not to mention falling in love with the younger version of her (Grace Glowicki) who appears in her dreams.
But this analogue reverie does not last. As Preble and Bella marvel at the stop-motion skeletons and frog waiters that populate their nocturnal world, forces gather to compel them to incorporate brands like Cap’n Kelly’s Chicken and Red Rocket Cola into their dreams. That’s where Strawberry Villa begins to resemble a fantasy adventure in the sense of the never ending Story or The Wizard of Oz, traverse time and space while paradoxically remaining in a single place. Perhaps the most enchanting aspect of the film is its understanding of dream logic, the processing of external plot points into fantastical narratives that make their own brand of internal sense. “One night we turned into turnips,” Preble explains in the voiceover — coincidentally, except not really, given that the night before the real Bella and the real Preble had turnips for dinner.
Strawberry Villa is not that satisfying on a storytelling level. The film only throws in Hail Mary plot developments when absolutely necessary, preferring to linger in Bella and Preble’s literal dream world, where quirky rules rule and anything is possible. This, of course, is consistent with the overall ethos of the project, which rejects rigid conformity in all its manifestations. But the battle for the minds of the characters – and thus for the entire human imagination – can be narratively underwhelming.
Still, there’s a lot to appreciate Strawberry Villa as an aesthetic object, as a flight of fancy and as a sci-fi vision. His message is political, but he’s not interested in overwhelming viewers with his issues. Composer Dan Deacon’s music knows when to shimmer and when to swell. The filmmakers combine celluloid grain and green screen for an original effect, and the use of color is inspired. (How many brainwashing chambers have you seen painted the hue of strawberry ice cream?) With an eccentricity like this guiding filmmaking, that’s perhaps to be expected — and easily forgiven Strawberry Villa emigrate to hunt butterflies.