Billie Piper’s audacious directorial debut follows imperfect – sometimes downright unpleasant – people. Mandy (Piper) makes do in an office full of not-so-passive aggressions, and her seven-year-old son’s struggles with anxiety that does nothing to alleviate the tension between herself, her ageing parents (Thewlis and Fox), and her off-and-on love interest (Leo Bill). The latter is odious, as are almost all the adult men in this film. Piper’s world is unforgiving, and Mandy develops the spikes to navigate it. This is most notably highlighted in the interactions between the central lovers. Some moments are deeply uncomfortable to watch, yet the consistently comic, self-aware framing keeps the film light while cutting into the heteronormative nonsense underlying romantic and familial conventions – especially where a fragile masculine ego is involved and the woman has a life, career, and child of her own.
The 87-minute run time of Rare Beasts may ultimately hamper it; Piper has many ideas at play, and not all get the full attention they deserve. Thankfully, the performances – helmed by the writer-director-star’s caustic, chaotic protagonist – captivate. Her characters constantly clash, making the odd moment of respite feel almost miraculous. The situations often veer towards the ridiculous and surreal, but there is an underlying honesty: their root causes are infinitely relatable and recognisable. The message is clear: from the microaggressions of Mandy’s job, to her romantic woes, to her neon cabaret fantasies of approval and escape, she cannot win without breaking down the world around her. When the metatheatrical moment of resolution arrives, it is glorious.
Stylistically bold and politically astute, Rare Beasts is a promising debut whose lack of coherence does not hamper its clarity of purpose. In an age of anti-rom coms, it is a refreshing entry in its utter refusal to compromise or justify. Piper’s storytelling audacity is one to watch.
CAST: Billie Piper, Leo Bill, David Thewlis, Kerry Fox
DIRECTOR: Billie Piper
WRITERS: Billie Piper
SYNOPSIS: Mandy struggles to balance her love life with caring for her elderly mother, insecure partner, struggling son, and – somewhere in there – herself.