Mandy (Billie Piper) is a cynical single mother and a proud nihilist. She goes on a date with Pete (Leo Bill). He is abrasive, misogynistic and a pretty terrible human being. For some inexplicable reason she is smitten, perhaps because he is honest in his repulsiveness. He’s not hiding on Reddit behind a username, he hides his rudeness behind honesty and religiousness. It’s not just Pete’s behaviour that is challenging, her young son Larch (Toby Woolf) clearly has behavioural issues that make going out in public difficult.
Rare Beasts gets straight into the couple’s odd power dynamic. The opening scene is the pair at dinner, Pete confidently tells her they will marry in a year despite his disdain towards her, she vomits into the street hours later. This perfectly sets up the tone of Piper’s directorial debut. It’s a little political, a little feminist, but mostly silly.
Despite seeing the chaotic and extreme relationship between her selfish father (David Thewlis) and her flighty mother (Kerry Fox), Mandy is keen to find a healthy life partner. So why she settles on her vile co-worker Pete, it isn’t clear. He had no good qualities, no redeeming features that would make audiences understand their courtship. Thewlis and Fox are underused as Mandy’s estranged parents, despite stealing the minimal scenes they are in. This results in the later scenes failing to have the emotional impact intended.
Billie Piper is excellent as Mandy. She delivers a flaw yet very sympathetic performance. Her script is witty and sometimes very funny, although there are more misses than hits. One scene where Mandy tries to make a television drama pitch to a male-dominated boardroom is blisteringly biting. She isn’t ashamed to lay bare the anxieties that women feel from all the expectations laid on them. Piper may have made a better film if she had concentrated on the struggles of being a working mother rather than Mandy’s uncomfortable love life.
There is also a fun cameo from Lily James as an insufferable bride at a wedding. There is a wonderfully awful first dance between the “post-post-post feminist” and her equally irritating groom. It straddles the line between mocking the fake wokeness of many, without insulting those who are actually fighting for a worthwhile cause.
Yet these hilarious moments are followed by more abstract scenes. The thin structure makes it hard to understand what the film is trying to say. The meta-comedy elements put up a barrier between Mandy and the audience, making it difficult to connect with her and the supporting cast. The scenes where Larch has public meltdowns aren’t as funny as they are pitched to be, they are uncomfortable to watch, like audiences are watching a private moment they shouldn’t be privy to.
Stylistically, Rare Beasts isn’t a shy film. It features some interesting editing choice, bold lighting and unflattering extreme close-ups. Piper’s directorial debut is bold in how jarring it wants to be, a representation of the confused and flawed heroine. It’s refreshing to see something so unapologetically weird, even if it doesn’t quite work.
Rare Beasts doesn’t follow the standard romantic comedy formula. The film also refuses to follow any narrative structure. Rather than a plot or character-driven study of love and relationships, Rare Beasts is a collection of fragmented scenes that range from fantasy musical segments to disastrous wedding dates. Writer/director Piper has cited Paul Thomas Anderson as a key influence, the off-kilter, slightly nervous energy reminiscent of Punch Drunk Love.
Rare Beasts wants to deal with the big topics like gender equality, self-improvement and the difficulties of bringing up a child with behavioural issues. The trouble is, it never moves past the simple observations. Piper has a relevant voice in female film-making, there is no doubt, but she has yet to hone it. There is no doubt that people will compare Rare Beasts to Fleabag. Although this is also a flawed heroine navigating relationships with lovers and parents, it swerves more towards outlandish humour and less towards the loneliness of existence.
Rare Beasts ultimately fails because it doesn’t translate well on the big screen, it feels like multiple narratives and genres shoved into one film. Rare Beasts would have worked better as a series of half an hour episodes. There is little thread to bind these scenes together, making it an emotional, sometimes funny but ultimately disjointed journey.
Rare Beasts was scheduled to screen at SXSW but was cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. It has yet to secure a release date.
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia Harvey is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy