Rare Beasts review: Billie Piper’s debut viciously mauls romcom conventions

While the film’s ideas have been explored before in British comedy, Piper’s creation has a particularly frantic and self-consciously confrontational quality

Clarisse Loughrey
Friday 21 May 2021 06:35 BST
Rare Beasts trailer released

Dir: Billie Piper. Starring: Billie Piper, Leo Bill, Lily James, David Thewlis, Kerry Fox, Toby Woolf. 15, 91 mins

There’s a striking commonality between Billie Piper’s last role, in Sky’s dark comedy-drama I Hate Suzie, and her directorial debut Rare Beasts. It’s as if she’s transformed herself into the figurehead for a certain kind of flawed womanhood – appearing with her kohl-painted eyes wet and half-melted, her lips drawn into a painful grimace. These characters remind us of what a drain the modern world is on women, all while demanding that the single socially acceptable form of feminist remains the overachieving “girl boss”. To fail is to disempower one’s self.

It’s an idea explored in a lot of recent British comedy, with Michaela Coel and Phoebe Waller-Bridge still revelling in all that is messy and intimate. But Piper’s creation has a particularly frantic and self-consciously confrontational quality – Mandy (Piper) is a working mother at the end of her tether, desperate for respite and finding little to comfort her. The director, writer and star has harnessed the feeling of intense rootlessness in a film that pops and fizzes with existential frustration. Its only weakness is how fully trapped it becomes in Mandy’s mind. It’s a barrage of thoughts and emotions, looking in vain for some sense of clarity.

There’s many an extreme close-up in Rare Beasts. At times, it feels as if the entire screen might be swallowed up by Piper’s face and the drooping lines of Mandy’s wearied expressions. Reality is not fixed. At one point, we’re shown a young Mandy on a gilded stage, tap-dancing away as the audience, her extended family, continue to scream and argue.

But other figures here tend to drift in and out of view with relatively little consequence, both underexplored and underutilised – there’s her son Larch (Toby Woolf), who’s implied to be on the autism spectrum; her parents, Vic (David Thewlis) and Marion (Kerry Fox), who are separated but still catastrophically tethered to each other; and then there’s Pete (Leo Bill), Mandy’s co-worker, who we first meet while the pair are on a hellish first date. He turns out to be an old-school misogynist. She defiantly hits back with the comment: “Those are classic rapist remarks.” He later attempts to run after her cab, before realising that he’s far too unfit for such passionate demonstrations. Rare Beasts does occasionally intertwine with romcom conventions – if only to viciously maul them.

Mandy (Billie Piper) with her son Larch (Toby Woolf): a working mother at the end of her tether
Mandy (Billie Piper) with her son Larch (Toby Woolf): a working mother at the end of her tether (Republic Film Distribution)

Pete is repulsive – Bill is particularly good at playing a weedy man with an ungodly amount of confidence – and yet, Mandy still falls for him. Feminism still can’t account for straight women’s god-awful taste in men. The pair attend a wedding where a self-absorbed bride (Lily James, in a cameo role) describes herself as a “post-post-post feminist”.

Rare Beasts is less a subversion of conventions than a demonstration of how their toxicity has latched onto women and disoriented them, leaving them unsure of what love looks or sounds like. As Mandy walks past other women in the street, she imagines them rhythmically tapping their temples and quietly repeating phrases of affirmation. These are all compelling ideas that Piper leaps wholeheartedly into – even if she, too, inevitably gets lost in the maze inside Mandy’s head.

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