The directorial debut of Billie Piper follows Mandy, a modern woman in a crisis. Raising a son in the midst of a female revolution, mining the pain of her parents separation and professionally writing about a love that no longer exists, she falls upon a troubled man, Pete, who’s searching for a sense of worth, belonging and ‘restored’ male identity. Starring: Leo Bill, Kerry Fox, Toby Woolf and David Thewlis.
Right from the start this film is in your face with its refusal to conform to the norm for women and mothers in film, it will have to fight to find an audience that will understand its intentions and appreciate the beautiful abnormality and eccentricity; however, if you’re willing to lean in to its unconventional affectations then you’ll have a ball. Describing itself as an ‘anti-rom-com’ is the ideal phrase, this is not Billie Piper as you’ve known her, forget the sweet, lovable characters you’ve seen her play before, she’s fully in control in front of and behind the camera and she’s keeping things straight faced and blunt to the fullest extent. That strong quality will not work for everyone, the style utterly sticks to its guns, it’s deadpan, sarcastic and maybe even a little peculiar, and it doesn’t let up at any point.
The writing is so sharp and quick that it feels as though Piper barely gets to take a breath for large portions of the film, nothing is allowed to become stagnant, it’s forever on the move. It’s made more brilliant by the fact that everything perfectly reflects one another, the way she speaks and the banter between characters is so well paired with the direction and editing to really push its style as far as it can go. Piper’s Mandy lives in chaos and the entire film flawlessly represents that, her relationships with her son, Pete and her parents feel like they’re constantly on the verge of collapse or eruption and that at any point in the film she could do absolutely anything but her straight face would give nothing away.
Piper’s supporting actors are fantastic, particularly Leo Bill as the detestable yet somehow still vaguely likeable Pete and Toby Woolf as Mandy’s son Larch, a character who firmly and unapologetically marches to the beat of his own drum. The opening scene of a date between Piper and Bill is so palpably awkward that it’s fantastic, it’s genuinely baffling to watch as these two say words to each other that are awful but still manage to have a successful date, it makes no sense but is written and directed so succinctly that you don’t question it. Thewlis’s role of Mandy’s father is another solid performance for him but it would have been great to see him get a little more screen time, being such an established and watchable actor, he had more to give but no time to do it. However that goes double for Lily James, her role is so small that it’s disappointing, and her involvement feels slightly unnecessary.
It sounds cliched to say the film’s direction is modern but it feels fresh and different, taking on what, at the core of it, is a common story of simply trying to figure out how to balance life, love and family but done in a way that’s quirky and funny, while also being relatively dark. The lovely thing about this film is that while it is about a woman in this time of regaining control and striving for equality, it isn’t trying to push the issues and problems of modern femininity in your face for 90-minutes and becoming completely politicised, it tackles it in a way that’s clear but subtle then waits until just the right moment to give you a scene that sums it all up superbly in the space of a few minutes. There are a couple of scenes that stray from its peculiar path into something more of a fantasy which don’t quite fit the strange mould that it’s made for itself, they feel outlandish for a film that’s already throwing its style in your face, unfortunately pushing it a touch too far.
Rare Beasts is a brilliant debut from Piper, even if the style or humour isn’t for you, it’s hard to deny that what she’s put together here is sharp, fresh and distinctive. It’s excellent in its portrayal of characters who are the epitome of being functionally dysfunctional, they want love and family but they’re abrasive and unforgiving so finding the balance is a difficult task. Piper clearly has a talent for being behind the camera and while this film may be less accessible than anticipated, for those who gel with its strong style, you’ll find it hilarious, refreshing, modern and lovably unlovable, so make sure you give it a chance.