Billie Piper redefines her eclectic career once again with a bold, distinctive yet scatter-shot directorial and screenwriting debut. Piper also stars as the central woman in crisis, Mandy, a messy, unstable single mum who finds herself struggling to deal with the many pressures she faces as a woman in contemporary society. Piper’s audacious debut is packed full of ideas and strong performances but lacks an emotional gateway into its scrappy narrative.
Rare Beasts follows Mandy, a modern woman who balances caring for her troublesome seven-year-old son, Larch (Toby Woolf), with a career at a production company. While the toxic relationship between Mandy’s uncaring father (David Thewlis) and resolute mother (Kerry Fox) is hardly the greatest advert for marriage, Mandy is still eagerly searching for a compatible partner. She soon falls for equally volatile, religious traditionalist Pete (Leo Bill) who proves to be as damaged and cynical as herself. Living up to its anti rom-com billing, the film defys expectation at every turn and never dilutes these combustible, uncompromising characters.
Rare Beasts is likely the most unusual film you’ll see all year. This is a film set slightly apart from reality where people don’t speak or act like rational human beings. Everything is filtered through Mandy’s perspective; whose anxieties and self-esteem issues distort the narrative and provoke multiple fantasy sequences. This approach, while undeniably daring, often limits our emotional connection with the characters. Rare Beasts’ surreal tone and the characters’ nonsensical behaviour prevents the audience from getting a foothold in the narrative and keeps us frustratingly at arm’s length.
Piper clearly has a unique voice with lots to say about gender roles, relationships and identity in contemporary society. But her ideas are delivered in such a hotchpotch manner that it’s often unclear what she is trying to express. If Piper’s voice behind the camera is still unrefined her performance in-front of it is as good as ever. Piper delivers a supremely multifaceted turn which forces you to empathise with Mandy, she’s at once vulnerable, confrontational, fiery and empathetic. She also brings an abundance of laughs, aided by her sharp, droll script. It’s such a magnetic performance that the film’s intrigue inevitably dips when she’s not on-screen. Elsewhere, Leo Bill puts in an adept turn as Mandy’s brash, purposely unlikeable partner and Lily James excels as an unbearable bride in an amusing cameo role.
Overall, Rare Beasts is a raw, provocative depiction of modern relationships with a stand-out performance from Piper. While certainly flawed in its execution, there’s enough flair, originality and passion on show to suggest Piper has a voice worth hearing.