Acclaimed actress Billie Piper makes her directorial and screenwriting debut with Rare Beasts, which has been pitched as a sort of ‘anti rom-com’. Piper also stars in the film as Mandy, a single mother who works for a production company, while trying to find someone to settle down with. The film opens on her date with co-worker Pete (Leo Bill), who is remarkably abrasive and rather misogynistic (Pete claims that while he loves women, he can’t stand them). Still, Mandy is inexplicably drawn to him, as she is attracted to Pete’s authenticity.
Rare Beasts, to its credit, is certainly determined to shake up the landscape of romantic comedies. Characters do not act as they would in your typical rom-com, in fact, the tropes like the sassy best friend are nowhere to be found. Instead, the film appears to be on its own remarkable mission to do everything differently. On this seemingly hellbent quest to be different, Rare Beasts ends up being a complex mess of muddled ideas and deeply unlikeable and erratic characters.
The opening scene with Mandy and Pete is funny, and the raw, unfiltered conversation between the two characters is reminiscent of Fleabag, but after this, the film never really recovers. It certainly feels like Fleabag is a particular inspiration for Piper’s debut, but the key difference between the two is a sense of humanity. What is fascinating here is that Piper’s characters seem completely devoid of any real human characteristics. Take the scene where Mandy goes to Pete’s families home for dinner. The entire scene feels contrived specifically to prove how ridiculous each and every character is, and it is tremendously grating as a result. Scenes like this can be effective when used to challenge, but when it feels like each and every moment is designed to be crazier than the next, it goes from being interesting into being a complete and utter bore.
Which leads to the bizarre tonal shifts. Rare Beasts regularly veers from comedy to drama with flashes of magical realism and surrealism and absurdism at a breakneck speed that prevents any of the emotional notes from landing. No work has been done to show who these characters are beyond their surfaces, and their quirks are so overbearing that everyone just feels detestable. Characters can still be worth investing time in if they are interesting, but everyone in Rare Beasts are so underdeveloped that time spent with them starts to feel like a punishment.
It all begs the question: what exactly is Rare Beasts trying to say? It seems to want to say a lot about love, modern life, work, mental health, religion, spirituality, feminism, sex and sexuality, but the film suffers from a classic problem of biting off more than it can chew. Nothing goes beyond implying that the modern world makes people crazy, which has been said many times before. There is so much that the film is trying to say that it ends up saying nothing.
There are moments of real honesty here – there is a particularly poignant scene occurs when Mandy undresses herself in front of Bill in an effort to reclaim power. It is a microcosm of what Piper is capable of, but any genuine moment is quickly buried by a cacophony of misplaced ideas, unlikable characters and erratic tonal shifts. While the film isn’t quite awful enough to say that Piper doesn’t have a promising future as a writer or director – there’s just enough here to suggest otherwise – this particular beast should be put out to pasture.
Directed by: Billie Piper
Written by: Billie Piper
Cast: Billie Piper, Lily James, David Thewlis, Kerry Fox