Rare Beasts takes a hatchet to romcom pipe dreams

Billie Piper writes, directs and stars as a frazzled young mum in search of strength and composure in this bracing takedown of fairytale femininity.

Billie Piper as Mandy in Rare Beasts (2021)

▶︎ Rare Beasts is in UK cinemas from 21 May 2021.

Rare Beasts is chaotic, messy and often difficult to watch – intentionally, fittingly, exhilaratingly so. Billie Piper’s directorial debut (she also wrote the screenplay) touches on themes of female insecurity, gender roles and social binds that she explored to great acclaim in last year’s TV series I Hate Suzie. While this 2019 feature may be rougher round the edges, and at times threatens to collapse under the weight of its characters’ neuroses, it’s a raw and bitingly honest watch.

Piper is bracingly good as Mandy, an anxious, self-deprecating 30-something Londoner who is is attempting to forge a successful career in TV production. If this sounds a bit Bridget Jones, that’s as far as the comparison goes. Things have moved on since Renee Zellweger’s clumsy heroine was seen as the cutting edge of female characterisation and, in its brutally frank depiction of frazzled femininity, Rare Beasts has far more in common with Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag or Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. Piper has designed her film as something of an anti-romcom, an exercise in dismantling idyllic Richard Curtis-esque notions that love and self-confidence are enough to conquer all personal demons. 

Toby Woolf as Larch and Billie Piper as Mandy in Rare Beasts

Mandy lives with her mother (Kerry Fox), who is dying of cancer, and has a difficult relationship with her flighty father (David Thewlis, in the film’s least-fleshed-out role), a man who continually eschews any family responsibility. Her young son Larch (Toby Woolf) is a wrecking ball of seven-year-old anger, anxiety and extreme behavioural ticks which Mandy attempts to ignore simply because she hasn’t got the emotional bandwidth to deal with anything else.

In any normal romcom, Mandy’s opening-sequence date with her obnoxious, patronising and (half-heartedly) religious colleague Pete (Leo Bull) would be an awkward misstep on her path to finding true love. The camera stays claustrophobically tight on their faces – an uncomfortably close-quarters stance that DOP Patrick Meller takes throughout the film – as they verbally spar across a restaurant table. As their weed-fuelled conversation aggressively veers from his views on her teeth and misogynistic thoughts about “modern women” to her assertion that he looks like a rapist, it’s difficult to tell if it’s banter or genuine antagonism. Yet, although Mandy flees from the restaurant (running being another recurring visual metaphor) and vomits in the street, she continues to see Pete and soon introduces him to Larch.

Rare Beasts (2021)

As their relationship unfolds, there are the usual beats: awkward sex, family days out, a trip to a stunning-yet-appalling wedding in Spain where Lily James plays a “post-post-post feminist” bride who has non-ironically chosen a ceremony about wives obeying their husbands. Yet filtered through Mandy’s exhausted worldview, they quickly descend into nihilistic nightmares: Larch has a distressing public tantrum over a balloon; Mandy and Pete have a blazing, violent row on a dance floor. Real life is complicated, thorny and bloody painful.

While some of these moments can be heavy handed in execution – confrontational sequences are set to discordantly upbeat or carnivalesque music, for example – Piper’s screenplay and performance mine painful truths with caustic confidence. Mandy wears her insecurities on her sleeve, and is attracted to Pete not because he tells her she’s wrong about herself, but because he agrees with her every self criticism. Elsewhere, fantasy-tinged sequences bring more of these usually-internalised thoughts screaming into the open, such as when the streets of London are filled with women of all ages ritualistically tapping their heads and engaging in personal affirmations which, they hope, will bring “money, cock, a promotion”. (“Even though I feel scared and angry, I still love and respect myself” is Mandy’s own desperate mantra.) 

A disjointed, time-hopping narrative and brisk editing from Hazel Baillie captures the overwhelming maelstrom of Mandy’s life, a relatable existence in which she’s using all her energy in running to keep up and simply doesn’t have the space or self-belief to dream any bigger. The real prize here is not a knight in shining armour, but the strength to walk on alone.

Further reading

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

Get your copy