Billie Piper makes waves with a visually stunning, but dramatically inert directorial debut.
(This review is part of our coverage of this year’s SXSW Film Festival. While the festival itself is canceled, we’re still providing remote reviews for some of the independent offerings the festival would have had.)
If the success of Fleabag is any indicator, it’s clear that the anguished frustrations of modern Englishwomen, told in droll, caustically stylish ways, can make for darkly insightful storytelling. It’s certainly territory Billie Piper seems interested in plumbing, as indicated by the acid-tongued explorations of Rare Beasts, her feature debut as writer/director/star. As visually stunning as it is narratively blurry, it’s a great showcase for what Piper can do on both sides of the camera — even as its polemics about the plight of men and women in the modern age don’t quite land with the nuance it deserves.
Something of an “anti-rom-com,” Rare Beasts follows an overwhelmed single mother named Mandy (Piper), living in a self-destructive spiral of toxic parents (Kerry Fox, dying; David Thewlis, an arsehole), a grossly misogynistic workplace, and a difficult son (Toby Woolf) who’s implicitly somewhere on the autism spectrum. Life seems to attack her on all fronts, giving her little room to think about who she is and what she wants; she is left simply to react and respond to the social and interpersonal forces pinballing her from one disorienting scenario to the next.
Her love life fares little better: as the film’s acerbic opening scene indicates, she puts herself through a tense, off-and-on romance with Pete (Leo Bill), a co-worker who’s every gross, MRA Redditor/Leave voter rolled into one. On one hand, his religiosity and desire to pull her towards stability is attractive to her; on the other hand, he’s controlling and overbearing and launches into chauvinist tirades about women at the drop of a hat. “You’re gonna rape me tonight, aren’t you?” says a stoned Mandy in the disruptive dinner date that opens the film. “Those are classic rapist remarks.”
And so begins the biggest problem Piper struggles with in Rare Beasts: Mandy’s struggles are both too ill-defined and too on-the-nose to feel particularly insightful about womanhood or the human condition as a whole. Piper’s script is quick with the quips, and it gives the game cast of actors (particularly Piper, who sinks her considerable teeth into the off-kilter lyricism of it all) plenty of nice, showy, actory moments and monologues. But as is, it all feels rather episodic, sending Mandy from one sketch to another on her journey to self-actualization. Work tirades transition to tense standoffs with her father, to yet another nails-on-chalkboard interaction with Pete, with little connective tissue in between.
Mandy’s struggles are both too ill-defined and too on-the-nose to feel particularly insightful about womanhood or the human condition as a whole.
But perhaps that’s the point: Mandy’s flailing for purpose in a world that clearly hates women just slightly more than it hates everyone else, and there is no easy answer besides not giving the men’s rights activist in your life the time of day. Her world is scattershot, so it stands to reason that the film itself would be similarly disorganized. It’s a bold choice, and allows room for Piper to wholeheartedly commit to the edgy, nihilistic humor of the script, but it doesn’t always work from a structural or narrative perspective.
What’s impossible to deny, though, is Piper’s visual eye. Alongside cinematographer Patrick Meller, Piper infuses Rare Beasts with a bold visual palette, occasionally popping with neon lights or Demme-esque straight-on close-ups. There’s even a clever use of a split diopter in one shot. Elliptical editing contributes to that aforementioned feeling of confusion, but it nonetheless crafts some intriguing moments in isolation, like a surprisingly warm dance at a friend’s wedding or a late-film fantasy sequence in which Mandy tap-dances her way through a lifetime of family arguments. She makes the kind of bold, unrestrained choices that are typical of a debut, and this is one of the rare times where it adds to, rather than detracts from, the proceedings.
Debut features, especially for actors, can be daunting, overloaded endeavors. For Billie Piper (one of the most interesting English actors of her generation ever since her breakout in Doctor Who), the only thing that holds Rare Beasts back from breaking that streak is its script. Despite its welcome lyricism, it errs on the side of incoherence, even as it grasps for insights about the overwhelming state of modern womanhood (and, occasionally, the ways it disorients men into retreating deeper into misogyny as a defense mechanism). But Piper is wonderful on both sides of the camera, and I can’t wait to see what her sophomore effort brings. Flawed as it may be, Rare Beasts gives us an enticing glimmer of things to come.