The Joys of Personal Evolution


If life were to remain stagnant, we’d probably become bored, disillusioned or unfulfilled by the stunning lack of change. That’s especially true for those of us who aspire to something more, to be able to freely express ourselves, regardless of the milieu through which we do so. However, if we’re to realize that objective, we need to make the effort to evolve. But, in attempting to implement that process, we sometimes find that evolution takes on forms that we don’t expect yet nevertheless leave us wholly and pleasantly transformed, providing us with what we need to make that progression possible. So it is for a weary young man looking to steer his life in a new direction in the charming comedy-drama, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom” (web site, trailer).

Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji) is dissatisfied with his life. As a teacher in the fourth year of a five-year Bhutanese government contract, he’s bored with his work, and it shows in his performance record, which is not up to expectations. He’s not especially enthused about his living arrangements, either, sharing a cramped apartment in the capital city of Thimphu with his grandmother (Tsheri Zom), who raised him after his parents perished. He feels trapped, unable to make any meaningful substantive changes.

Ugyen’s heartfelt desire is to immigrate to Australia to pursue a singing career, and he’s ready to quit and walk away from his teaching job. However, when he meets with his boss, the Education Secretary (Dorji Om), he’s reminded that he’s still under contract and must fulfill his obligations. What’s more, given her dissatisfaction with his track record, she’s not in the mood to extend any favors. In fact, she believes his performance merits reassignment, a prospect that causes his heart to sink, especially when he finds out where he’s being sent. The Secretary sternly informs him that he’s being assigned to fill a teaching position in the remote village of Lunana in the mountains on the Chinese border.

To say the least, Ugyen is stunned. Relocating to Lunana means giving up the relative comforts of the modern world for a Spartan existence, such as learning how to get by without essentials like electricity and cell phone service. The village’s location at altitude with its thin air is also a concern, something Ugyen’s not accustomed to. He attempts to talk his way out of this news, but to no avail; he’s told he must accept the assignment. If there’s a saving grace, he’s informed that the posting is only for a few months; he’s not expected to spend the winter in Lunana, where conditions can become oppressively harsh. But even that reassurance does little to raise his enthusiasm as he embarks on a journey that feels like a jaunt to purgatory.

Upon leaving Thimphu, he takes a bus to a small village that marks the final stop on the route into the countryside. But that’s far from the end of the trip. Upon his arrival, he’s met by two guides, Michen (Ugyun Norbu Lhendup) and Singye (Tshering Dorji), Sherpas of sorts who will escort him to Lunana. They describe the impending trek as an easy journey, but that’s an appraisal based on their perspective. Since they’re accustomed to the prevailing conditions, it’s not a big deal for them. But, for an urbanite like Ugyen, it’s a strenuous adjustment – especially since the journey takes nearly a week on foot through the Bhutanese wilderness, including traversing a high-altitude pass.

Ugyen’s ready to give up even before he reaches his destination, a decision reinforced once he arrives in Lunana. He’s shocked at his primitive living conditions, such as an oven/furnace that’s powered by burning dried yak dung. And then there’s his classroom, which lacks such basics as a blackboard. He’s ready to pack up and leave.

Oddities like having a yak in the classroom are among the local curiosities that a onetime-urban teacher, Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji), must adapt to when he’s reassigned to a post in a remote mountain village in the new Bhutanese offering, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

However, despite these circumstances, Ugyen is warmly welcomed by the villagers. He is treated as a respected guest, an honor frequently accorded to teachers in Bhutan. Village leader Asha Jinpa (Kunzang Wangdi) tells Ugyen that he is willing to provide him, within reason, whatever he needs and wants to do his job. Asha is convinced that education is crucial to the children of Lunana, something that’s integral to their personal growth and development. He believes it’s essential to them being able to attain goals greater than becoming simple yak herders, the vocation that most of the townsfolk end up pursuing, usually by default.

With that understanding, Ugyen begins to realize his personal value and that of his profession in ways that he’s never appreciated before. That awareness is amplified when he meets his students for the first time. They show him reverence and a level of respect that floors him. They’re eager to follow his lessons and to do whatever he asks, and the class captain, Pem Zam (Pem Zam), zealously makes sure that her peers adhere to his instructions. The students are exuberantly pleased to have a teacher in the classroom once again, and they take a genuine liking the new arrival. He quickly becomes their favorite, an attitude that gradually but completely changes Ugyen’s outlook.

In addition to the unexpected career satisfaction that Ugyen begins to develop, he also takes a shine to living in Lunana. The stunning beauty of the surroundings is breathtaking, the whimsical nature of his locale is renewing, and the genuine warmth of the residents leaves him feeling loved and appreciated in a way that he has never experienced before. Ugyen also develops a particularly strong affinity for a local musician, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung). He’s captivated by her mesmerizing voice, and she plays a key role in teaching him the ways of local musical styles, something that has a profound influence on his own artistic sensibilities. Before long, the assignment that Ugyen once dreaded becomes a transformative experience for him personally, vocationally and artistically, and his dreams of relocating to Australia seem to fade into the background. Ugyen genuinely appears to be in his element.

But, with winter approaching, Ugyen is now facing an important decision: Does he depart as originally planned, or does he stay put in the environment he has become so enamored with? It’s a decision he’ll have to live with once he makes up his mind, given that the heavy snow buildup in locations like the mountain pass will invariably prevent his departure until spring. Is he prepared to tough it out under those conditions? Yet is he ready to leave behind what he has so grown to love? This is a decision Ugyen wasn’t expecting when he took on this assignment, but it’s an important one considering the tremendous impact it will have on him and his future. And, even when he finally makes a decision, he may still find himself unprepared for what awaits him, an outcome that provides him with surprises, opportunities and developments he never anticipated.

Class captain Pem Zam (Pem Zam, left) exuberantly enjoys having a teacher back in her village school after the absence of an instructor, as seen in the Oscar-nominated feature, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom,” available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

As this story opens, Ugyen feels like he’s stagnating, stuck in a dissatisfying rut from which escape doesn’t appear likely without taking some drastic measures. And, to his credit, in devising his plan to relocate to Australia, he appears to be doing just that. But, when that scenario is thwarted, he feels like he’s digging himself into an ever-deepening hole, one from which flight has seemingly become impossible. Or is it?

Whatever comes next for Ugyen depends on what he believes, for those intangible resources will determine what unfolds. Indeed, Ugyen knows he needs to change the well-worn tape that’s been playing for far too long, and his immigration plan reflects that. But, as becomes apparent through this odyssey, it’s not enough. It doesn’t provide him with all of the elements needed to manifest a truly transformative experience. He not only needs to change locations, but he also needs to change himself. And, as his story plays out, Australia won’t bring that about, but Lunana just might.

In metaphysical circles, it’s widely assumed that we’re all continually evolving, that everything is in a constant state of becoming, and it’s apparent Ugyen hungers for that kind of change. But, if he’s to bring that about in his life, he needs to make sure that his next step represents a fundamental alteration. That kind of change begins with who he is, something that he apparently (and rightly) believes will only take place under circumstances that make it possible, namely, in a radically different environment under drastically different conditions from what he’s accustomed to. That’s why he manifests the circumstances that make such change occur. He may not be fully conscious of that decision when he embarks on that journey, but, somewhere deep down inside his consciousness, he knows that he’s drawing to himself exactly what he needs to make that transformation materialize. And it gives him precisely what he requires to grow and change as an individual.

Road trip stories like this are perfect narrative settings for showcasing adjustments like those depicted here. Those who set out on such journeys seldom end up being the same people at the end that they were at the beginning, proof that these types of undertakings accomplish their underlying goals. And, when properly tuned beliefs are in place that make such fulfillment possible, the degree of success is generally more than obvious, even if the intents driving them weren’t readily apparent at the outset.

Those who become engaged in these scenarios can often tell that they’re working if they’re paying attention to what’s going on around them as events unfold. For instance, when perfectly attuned developments occur that further the manifestation of the underlying intents, those at the center of them generally experience synchronicities, coincidences that seem so perfectly tailored to their needs that they just can’t be random happenings. And, when synchronicities arise in succession, they provide a trail of metaphysical bread crumbs leading us to where we need to end up. These sign posts show us that we’re on the right path, headed toward the fulfillment of our destiny.

Teacher and aspiring singer Ugyen Dorji (Sherab Dorji, left, back to camera) develops a strong affinity with a Bhutanese mountain musician, Saldon (Kelden Lhamo Gurung, right), who instructs him in the ways of local musical styles in director Powa Choyning Dorji’s debut feature, “Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The foregoing is clearly the case where Ugyen is concerned. The longer he stays in Lunana and the more comfortable he grows with his circumstances, the more satisfaction he gets out of the experience, providing him with validation that he’s where he’s supposed to be. He experiences a series of “aha!” moments, each offering more proof of that with each passing day. He comes to realize that his “unexpected” reassignment is exactly what he needed to become who he wanted to be, even if he wasn’t aware of that fact when he started out on this journey.

Of course, if we’re to make the most of such scenarios, we must make every effort to be prepared for them. This means shedding beliefs that could get in the way and serve as roadblocks, definite obstacles to our success. This is perhaps most important where fears, apprehensions and limitations are concerned. They can severely undercut efforts like these, reinforcing the stagnation and stalling forward progress. If Ugyen were to allow these hindrances to interfere in his plans, for instance, there’s a good chance he’d be no further along than when he started. And where would that leave him? Thankfully, his experience sets an inspiring example for all of us who want to move forward with meaningful fulfillment.

It’s always gratifying to find a little-known film that delights beyond expectations, as is the case with this uplifting offering from Bhutan. The joys and insights that emerge throughout the adrift protagonist’s experience open his eyes to fresh new possibilities that he hadn’t previously considered for his life and his art. Heartening sentiments, gorgeous cinematography and skillfully nuanced performances abound, despite some occasional tendencies toward obvious but forgivable predictability. Director Powa Choyning Dorji’s debut feature showcases the work of a promising new talent who appears poised to deliver elegant, beautiful and revitalizing work from the rooftop of the world. This Oscar nominee for best international feature is available for streaming online.

Moving forward may not be an easy process, no matter how much we hope it will be. We may even view certain developments as setbacks that seemingly deter our efforts. However, if we trust the path we’re on, we often find that we’re headed in the right direction, that the fortuitous changes awaiting us are squarely on the horizon and readily within our sights. And, when we at last come upon them and what they have to offer us, we can proceed with ease and speed, taking us to our desired destination and the rewards that accompany our arrival.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

A Double Feature in March!

Join guest host Ishita Sharma and yours truly for a double dose of movie review broadcasts on Frankiesense & More in March! The first, on March 3, will feature reviews of five new movies, and the second, on March 24, will include new movie reviews and my predictions for the Oscars in the top six categories (posting times to follow). Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

In Pursuit of Healing and Forgiveness

Getting past the pain in our lives is an arduous undertaking. It goes without saying that recovering from a terrible tragedy can be exceedingly difficult. Even talking about it can be grueling, especially when unspeakable acts are involved. That’s ironic, too, given that openly vocalizing one’s feelings is often one of the most effective ways of bringing about healing. But, in many cases, that’s what needs to happen at some point if the survivors of such atrocities want to get past them to achieve a sense of closure and perhaps to be able to express forgiveness, elements that provide the basis for the new domestic drama, “Mass” (web site, trailer).

Two middle-aged married couples are up against the biggest challenge of their lives. Having unexpectedly shared in an exceptionally traumatic experience, they have spent several years trying to unravel their feelings and to figure out how to pick up the pieces. They’re so numb that they don’t even know where to begin, and that’s kept them from moving forward to address the issues in question. But, realizing they can’t allow themselves to be permanently emotionally paralyzed, they at last begin taking steps to break the deadlock. And, with that, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton) and Linda and Richard (Ann Dowd, Reed Birney) initiate the process of finally moving forward with the assistance of an intermediary, Kendra (Michelle N. Carter), to intervene on their behalf.

Kendra arranges for the couples to meet and open a dialogue, one designed to bring their thoughts, feelings and experiences to the surface. After sensitively finessing the conditions under which the four participants will convene, the intermediary arranges for Jay, Gail, Linda and Richard to at last assemble in a meeting room adjacent to a community Episcopal church. Under Kendra’s guidance, parish staff members Judy (Breeda Wool) and Anthony (Kagen Albright) carefully prepare the facilities, not knowing what will unfold when the couples arrive. Given what little they have been told about what’s about to transpire, Judy and Anthony don’t know what to expect, but they clearly sense that it will be trying for all concerned – including those who aren’t directly involved.

Upon the couples’ arrival, they’re escorted into the conference room for their meeting. The tension is undeniably palpable. And, try as they might to put up brave fronts, it’s easy to see the anguish on the four pained faces in the room. But that’s nothing compared to what’s about to come as they finally open up and begin their discussion.

To say more would reveal far too much about the nature of the incident that has brought them together, as well as what’s to follow during their emotionally charged conversation. Suffice it to say they all share in reaching a common outcome. But, as feelings come rushing forth to the surface, the process unleashes a tsunami of previously unexpressed emotions. It’s a case where the couples confront one another and even where spouses challenge one another. It also becomes a situation in which unexpected new alliances form, especially when previously undisclosed revelations and hurts emerge. Such developments thus take matters in directions that no one likely expected when the session began.

So how will it all turn out? That depends on the nature and course of the dialogue, especially when it comes to the specific paths the participants choose to pursue their sought-after closure. It’s a result that everyone – including the audience – wants. But will it be achieved?

Considering what Jay, Gail, Linda and Richard are up against in this film, it’s easy to understand why they haven’t been able to confront the situation – or one another – for years. The excruciating pain that they’re attempting to deal with is so overwhelming and pervasive that they don’t know where to begin. But begin they must if they ever hope to get past the devastation. And that all comes down to what they believe, for their beliefs will determine the direction in which they head thanks to their role in shaping our existence.

There are so many beliefs that need to be addressed as this process begins that it’s hard to know where to start: What do the two couples believe they want to achieve through it? How do they go about it (or can they even go about it)? How will they respond once they find themselves in the midst of it? Will it bring about the desired results? And will they be able to carry on afterward? That’s a big list of considerations to address, and the outcomes of all of them depend on whatever belief input the foursome incorporates into them up front. That’s a lot to handle, especially given everything that’s weighing on them emotionally, concerns that invariably can’t be excluded from the mix of everything else that’s being examined.

The first step is creating an environment where the best hoped-for outcome is attainable. That’s a tall order considering that, at the outset, it may be unfathomable to come up with a suitable setting. But difficult is not impossible, and thanks to thoughtful deliberation and professional guidance, the two couples are able to devise a solution that at least opens the door to making the desired result possible. There’s much to be said for that in itself.

In manifesting circumstances like these, there are several significant sets of beliefs that factor into the process. For instance, Jay, Gail, Linda and Richard need to act courageously, dropping their fear-based beliefs as they move ahead. Simultaneously, they must all believe it’s possible to work together, on the same page, in developing the means and methods for bringing about what they seek to achieve, a deliberate act of co-creation. Then they must allow themselves to be open to pushing past limitations, specifically the barriers in their beliefs that have kept them locked in place for so long. This requires that they consider envisioning possibilities that haven’t been tried before, particularly since what they’ve already attempted hasn’t gotten them anywhere.

Those all might seem like obvious and highly practical notions. In fact, one might rightfully ask, why haven’t they sought to implement them before? However, when considering all of the other painful emotional beliefs that are caught up in this mix, it’s understandable that such seemingly commonsense approaches might have been overlooked or purposely set aside. Their preoccupation with their feelings could well have hindered them from taking those steps, keeping resolution – or even the initiation of the process aimed at achieving it – at bay. The fact that they are at last moving ahead is a tremendous accomplishment in itself and one that’s to be highly commended for the quartet’s commitment and bravery.

Ideally, however, as much as the foregoing can set the couples on the road to success, it would be even more helpful if they could take an even grander step – leaving themselves open to new concepts that not only meet but exceed their expectations. Given the burdens they’ve been carrying, any form of relief would naturally be of benefit. However, if they were to consider the possibility that matters could work themselves out beyond the minimum level of probability, they could afford themselves an opportunity for a truly new beginning, one that extricates them from their sorrow and puts them on a path for a fresh start, one that incorporates elements of not only healing and forgiveness but also the prospect of genuine optimism, something they haven’t experienced in a very long time. Now that would be quite a creation. All it takes is appropriate beliefs.

For all of the promise contained in these proceedings, however, the couples must also be cognizant of the possibility that one slip in their beliefs could potentially cause everything to come crashing down on them. Given the emotionally charged influences that are caught up in this process, it wouldn’t take much for one errant belief to creep into the mix and unravel all the progress that has been made, potentially leaving the participants back where they started – or possibly even worse off. With these possible undermining influences lurking in the background, they must be kept in check (or, preferably, purged) to keep the process moving forward. To do otherwise could lead to irreparable backsliding, and what a shame that would be – compounding an already-terrible tragedy from which there may be no coming back, no matter how painstakingly the participants might work to do so. We can only wish them the best – and hope that they avail themselves of what this opportunity affords.

It’s hard to imagine that a film consisting almost exclusively of dialogues and monologues can make for a compelling watch, but such is the case with writer-director Fran Kranz’s debut feature. The pained conversation documented here opens many doors that have long been closed, releasing a deluge of raw emotions while simultaneously paving a path to healing, a truly cathartic experience for anyone who screens it. Although the film starts off slowly and somewhat clumsily (probably by intention but not especially effectively), it soon finds its voice and manages to captivate from that point forward. Credit the film’s carefully crafted screenplay, solid camera work and skillful editing for making engaging viewing out of material that might otherwise be considered dull, talky and visually monodimensional. But the picture’s greatest asset is the stellar acting of its four principals, who turn in riveting performances that stand out both individually and collectively. And, as the story plays out, viewers come to see how the film’s title is a brilliant double entendre that captures the essence of what happened and what the proceeding hopes to achieve.

It’s unfortunate that this offering has not garnered the kind of recognition it deserves (most likely due to its anemic distribution and a dearth of publicity), but it has been receiving ample critical acclaim and well-earned awards season accolades. Thankfully, this moving and powerful release shows that a movie doesn’t need to rely on endless explosions and high-powered special effects to capture and maintain viewer interest while delivering profound insights into the human mind and heart. The film initially played in limited theatrical release last fall and is now available for online streaming.

Despite the picture’s lack of visibility, it has garnered its share of awards season recognition. “Mass” has been named the winner of the Independent Spirit Awards’ Robert Altman Award, which honors excellence in casting. It also earned an ISA nomination for best first screenplay. In addition, the supporting performance of Ann Dowd has been deservedly singled out as a nominee in the Critics Choice and BAFTA Awards competitions.

Unfortunately, it can be all too easy to stay stuck in our grief. The effort to pull ourselves out of it may seem so daunting that many of us might look upon it as hardly worth it. But what kind of life would that be? Saddling ourselves with perpetual sorrow wouldn’t leave us with much worth living for, and that would be an even bigger tragedy than the one that put us in this state. Renewal is possible if we engage in the work – especially where our beliefs are concerned – to provide ourselves with the means for starting anew and at last putting our anguish behind us. 

A complete review is available by clicking here.

The Power of Dreams 

Dreams carry tremendous power. They give us hope, inspiration and motivation to achieve lofty goals, aspirations that have become synonymous with the word “dream” itself. But there’s even more to them than that; their power, backed by the beliefs that drive them, can impact our existence in unimaginable ways, enabling possibilities we may have never envisioned. Getting to that realization may take some doing, though, especially when it comes, ironically enough, to “awakening,” an odyssey insightfully depicted in the new sci-fi fantasy, “Strawberry Mansion” (web site, trailer).

Have you ever been on an email or social media web site where you’ve found advertising in the margins or newsfeed that, remarkably, just happens to match what you’ve just been thinking or talking about? Some find it uncanny, while others find it creepy and intrusive. But imagine what it might be like if that highly synchronistic concept could be taken a step further, with promotional messages for products that you have an immediate need or desire for miraculously showing up in your dreams. Those perfectly timed recommendations might almost seem heaven-sent, especially among those who don’t fully understand the nature of their dream life. They’re so unaware – yet so grateful – for the suggestions that they rush out to purchase the products in question upon awakening. On top of that, they’re so appreciative for these leads that they’re even willing to pay taxes for them. Amounts are assessed based on the imagery in their dreams, the details of which are faithfully and willingly recorded to provide documentation for tax authorities. Payment is provided upon awakening, a gesture that has unquestioningly become part of their morning routine. And that goes for virtually everybody.

Sounds rather invasive, doesn’t it? What’s most unnerving about all this, though, is that most people don’t realize that the images related to the recommendations are being planted in their dreams without their knowledge. Like sheep, they go along with what’s being sold to them, and they never raise a fuss about the practice nor object to paying the taxes.

When tax auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley, back to camera) arrives at the remote home of an elderly eccentric, he’s not quite sure what to expect, as seen in the whimsical new sci-fi release, “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Such is life in 2035, where technology has been perfected to a point where these practices have been thoroughly implemented and blindly accepted as standard operating procedure. Our dreams truly aren’t our own any more, and we don’t even realize it. That’s true even for the tax collectors, who generally have no idea that they’re being taken just like everybody else. All they’re concerned with is doing their jobs, conducting audits to make sure that everyone is paying his or her “fair” share.

That’s where tax auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley) enters the picture. He dutifully dreams his dreams, buys the recommended products, pays the requisite taxes and goes about his work making sure that taxing authorities are getting their “just” due. He’s a good little consumer and civil servant who never questions the status quo and makes a practice of enforcing regulations to the letter.

But that all changes when James is tasked with performing an audit of an eccentric old woman, Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller). It seems she’s delinquent on her taxes, having apparently not paid them in quite some time. James pays a visit to her rural residence, a bright, magenta, Victorian structure that she calls the Strawberry Mansion. Much to his surprise, Bella warmly welcomes him into her home, whose interior is even more eye-popping than the exterior. The aging artist has filled the rooms with all manner of colorful, inventive paintings, sculptures and figurines, looking as if they were images from her dreams brought to life.

All of this leaves James more than a little baffled. However, he’s even more surprised by the warm hospitality Bella extends to him. That’s true despite his explanation for the purpose of his visit. James is mystified that she offers no resistance and cooperates fully, a reaction far different from how most people respond when the taxman comes for a visit. Nevertheless, he gladly welcomes her assistance, especially when he discovers the extent of the material he’ll need to review for his audit. In fact, it quickly becomes apparent that his work is going to require a great deal of time, so much so that Bella extends an invitation to stay at her home for as long as it takes. After all, she doesn’t want to “tax” him with having to repeatedly make the long commute back and forth between his residence and her remote property.

Upon arrival at his audit subject’s home, taxman James Preble (Kentucker Audley, back to camera) soon realizes he has his work cut out for him, a project that will ultimately help to change his life, as depicted in the delightful indie sci-fi release, “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

As James begins his audit, he discovers Bella has about 2,000 dream tapes for review, a process that will likely take even longer than expected given that they’re in an outdated format. There are frequent distractions, too, such as Bella routinely interrupting him to graciously serve him tea or a meal. He’s also sidetracked by the unusual imagery in Bella’s house and his host’s perpetually genial and unconventional demeanor, particularly the strange, lighted helmet she often sports. He feels as though his professionalism is being compromised, and it makes him uncomfortable. But those diversions are nothing compared to what’s to come.

In watching Bella’s tapes and assessing taxable amounts, he starts to become captivated by the imagery in her dreams. Many of them are truly out there, such dinner in a restaurant with as a tall, talking frog waiter (Albert Birney) and a series of outdoor encounters with a mysterious “grass man” who looks oddly familiar. But what captures James’s attention most is Bella’s younger self (Grace Glowicki), a beautiful woman who also seems uncannily familiar. James can’t help but be taken in by what he sees.

After reviewing a number of tapes, James and Bella partake in a number of profound conversations. He grows curious about her and her past, and this personal interest unwittingly prompts him to let his guard down. He slowly drops his professional demeanor as they talk about subjects unrelated to the audit. In no time, their discussions turn to the subject of dreams, but not just their own nighttime experiences; they also discuss the nature of dreams and what they’re capable of, notions that Bella has a good handle on but about which James is comparatively clueless. She then confesses that it’s important for James to understand this, because it will open his eyes. What’s more, she says that this understanding will help to show him that the two of them are intrinsically connected in many more ways than just the audit, a revelation that captivates him.

What follows is an odyssey beyond imagination, including a strange meeting with Bella’s long-estranged son, Peter (Reed Birney). To say more about it, though, would reveal too much, but suffice it to say that the experience is enlightening and challenging in myriad ways. It’s an adventure that has the potential to not only awaken James to possibilities and secrets he hadn’t previously considered, but also to do the same for many in the viewing audience. Fasten your seatbelts, folks.

The odd habits, artwork and wardrobe of aging eccentric Arabella Isadora (Penny Fuller) confounds a conventional tax auditor in “Strawberry Mansion,” the latest offering from directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney. Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

As viewers and characters alike discover, what starts out as a small, slice of life-type of story gradually balloons into something far bigger, one that touches on the nature of our dreams, the meaning of existence and the management of our personal power. And, given that, the tax collection story line quickly seems pretty trivial by comparison (a notion we might all be wise to take to heart in our own lives!). Indeed, with so much at stake here, we, like the protagonist, would be wise to pay close attention to what’s unfolding.

For what it’s worth, the audit assignment is the hook that gets James’s attention and leads him down a truly enlightening path. He soon discovers that dreams are more than a coerced revenue source, and the further he examines this notion, the more he comes to realize how his beliefs about them play a significant role in his reality, the one he experiences while asleep and the one he experiences while awake. Such is what comes out of the role they play in shaping our existence. As the picture so eloquently illustrates, what can potentially emerge from our dreams (and the beliefs behind them) is quite a step up from the more mundane “revelations” they have typically yielded, such as learning which brand of fried chicken is the crispiest or what pesticide is most effective in eliminating a spider infestation. But, then, that’s probably to be expected when we discover how powerful and valuable these tools can be to our personal happiness and well-being, especially when we can see past the manipulation that goes into employing them for mere consumer good pitches.

Once James learns how to take control of his beliefs, he realizes how much more they have to offer, particularly in the dream state. Even more importantly, though, he sees how he can employ them to bring about what gives him personal fulfillment and satisfaction. The goals and aims that he had allowed himself to become accustomed to in his dreams suddenly pale by comparison. The vistas that open up to him now are more meaningful and significant than those that have long come to him, for instance, through nightly visits from a dreamtime avatar (Linas Phillips) who has tried to sell him on things like which brand of soda to buy.

While reviewing a dream recording for tax purposes, auditor James Preble (Kentucker Audley, left) becomes captivated with the younger self of his audit subject, Arabella Isadora (Grace Glowicki, right), in “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

This realization enables James to grow and evolve in ways he hadn’t anticipated when he began Bella’s audit. He undergoes a fundamental metamorphosis, one in which he begins to realize his potential in ways he hadn’t previously imagined. In fact, like those in many of the world’s indigenous cultures, he comes to understand that the dream state is the real reality – one in which infinite possibilities for exploration and creative expression are attainable – and that the waking consciousness we think of as “reality” is itself merely a dream. It may be a powerfully seductive one in which we become heavily invested in the veracity of what we experience, but it’s still only one limited line of possibility, one that comes up far short in comparison to what true existence can afford us. And, as becomes apparent, it all comes down to the underlying beliefs driving this process and how fiercely we adhere to them, a notion that’s not especially difficult to grasp given their inherent power and persistence.

In light of the foregoing, dreams and beliefs thus place infinite possibilities readily within our reach, provided we give ourselves permission to experience them. This means there are genuine modes of expression that allow us to immerse ourselves in unrelenting joy and freedom (or their opposites, if we so choose), a lesson that Bella – in both of her iterations – is desperate for James to discover for himself. She realizes that there’s much more to what he can attain than what he’s allowed himself to be compelled into believing. Indeed, reality really can be quite the adventure if we’ll only open our eyes and allow it.

Of course, if this is to happen, we must begin practicing discernment to discover what we truly believe and what we’ve allowed ourselves to become blinded by. This involves eliminating such undercutting influences as fears and limitations, for they only get in our way and keep us from achieving true happiness – the kind that the profit-motivated manipulators don’t want us to see or experience. After all, if we go down that path, we may end up buying a different brand of soda – or no soda at all – much to their exasperated consternation. Think about that the next time you read your email page or visit a social media web site. You’re in charge of your beliefs, which means that you’re in charge of your destiny and how your reality unfolds.

During the course of what is supposed to be a routine audit, taxman James Preble (Kentucker Audley, right) has an unusual encounter with Peter Bloom (Reed Birney), the long-estranged son of his audit subject, in “Strawberry Mansion.” Photo courtesy of Music Box Films.

Considering the breadth of material addressed here, this is, without a doubt, one of the best new releases I’ve seen in a while. This little-known sci-fi gem from directors Kentucker Audley and Albert Birney serves up a funny, thoughtful meditation on the nature of existence, the intrusiveness of attempted mental manipulation and the perils of unbridled greed, all wrapped up in a delightful, visually sensational package. It’s also one of the most romantic stories I’ve screened in ages, conveying genuine, heartfelt emotion without ever becoming schmaltzy, a rare accomplishment in general and something rarely seen in this genre. The film’s scrupulous attention to detail in the production design, cinematography and writing is absolutely astounding, and its inventive, clever creativity sparkles but without ever becoming excessive or gimmicky. There’s a lot to like in this one, as well as a lot that gives viewers pause for thought. And, aside from a slight tendency to stretch things out a little too long in the final act (most likely due to the filmmakers’ sincere desire to cover as much ground as possible), there’s really not much else to criticize here. “Strawberry Mansion” may not appeal to everyone, but, for those who value cinematic innovation without the material becoming tedious, annoying or implausible, this one is for you. The film is playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.

For many of us, dreams are a mystery, but they need not be mystifying. If we make the effort to understand them and then make use of that knowledge, there’s no telling where they can take us. Of course, if we allow ourselves to become hung up on the impediments that keep us from grasping or employing those insights, we may never realize what we’re missing, and that would be unfortunate. After all, a can of bug spray can’t begin to compare with the wonder of existence and everything it can offer us.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.