Rare Beasts is not an easy film to like. One suspects this is by design, as Billie Piper’s directorial debut traffics in the kind of unrestrained female vitriol rarely seen onscreen, let alone taking up an entire movie. A pop star turned actress, Piper has made it clear on several occasions that Rare Beasts’ story is not strictly autobiographical, since another downside to being a woman with a voice is that most people assume it’s only being used to share something innately personal. Male creatives are afforded the luxury of being labeled “auteurs” after just a couple of movies, while their female counterparts must consistently prove their worth even in the face of something like Rare Beasts, a movie that speaks to womenkind on a visceral level but also contains a universal message about knowing your value and refusing to shrink it down to suit others.
The story begins with a horrible date already in full swing. Single mother Mandy (Piper) experiences some major verbal diarrhea, but her situation isn’t helped by the fact that suitor Peter (Leo Bill, who impressed as a hypnotically dull service engineer in In Fabric) appears to be quoting directly from the Men’s Rights Activists subreddit. “I find women in the main intolerable” he tells Mandy without a shred of irony. Just a few moments later, Pete complains, “women want more head than ever.” These are, as Mandy so succinctly puts it, “classic rapist remarks” and yet the glum single mother finds herself transfixed by this charisma vacuum regardless. Is she just desperately lonely, or is this really the best Mandy can hope for? Rare Beasts doesn’t offer any easy answers, as Piper’s film is a clever, unflinching treatise on the many ways women are torn down, from Pete’s casual misogyny to Mandy’s boss assuming she must be great in bed, and how they can fight back.
Even Mandy’s son, the horrifying Larch (a committed Toby Woolf) seems to just take, take, take. The kid clearly has behavioral issues, but he’s also a spoilt brat who whines about iPads not being charged enough and refuses to say “I love you” back to his mother. Larch is the most irritating child this side of The Babadook, but he’s also an interesting example of how boys are raised to become the men they’ll eventually be — when Mandy hopes Larch will grow up to be a nice guy, for instance, Pete scoffs at her. Mandy’s father is even more of a nightmare. Played by David Thewlis, with no evidence of the twinkly eyed sweetness he brought to Harry Potter’s tortured Lupin, Vic is a philandering, chain-smoking prick who still causes Mandy and her mother (Kerry Fox) misery despite the fact he no longer lives with them (Vic tends to show up unannounced and just hang around). His interactions with Pete, meanwhile, highlight the disturbing similarities between the two men.
Piper has described Rare Beasts as a kind of anti-rom-com, and indeed Mandy’s burgeoning relationship with Pete is only one part of a bigger puzzle. In a moment of meta commentary, Mandy is flatly informed by her boss that nobody cares about miserable women’s stories; Piper’s film is a very deliberate response to such assertions. This is female rage writ large, the warm and sunny cinematography barely disguising and often jarring against, the dark, seething underbelly of a patriarchal society that, despite its fantastical elements, closely resembles our own (women walk past Mandy on the street repeating self-help mantras to themselves aloud, a dance sequence at a hipster wedding could be taken as either real or imagined). Likewise, a dreamy surfer rock soundtrack scores some of the movie’s most horrible moments, marking a deliberate juxtaposition between the reality of women’s lives and the happy faces they put on for the rest of the world.
Aside from the sadly still progressive stance on broadcasting women’s grievances to the world, Piper proves herself an adept and confident filmmaker, with a keen eye for shooting scenes from strange perspectives, either to showcase how isolated certain characters are, or to give a deeper sense of what’s going on in their heads. Flirting with her story’s rom-com leanings, Pete runs after Mandy’s taxi only to give up before catching it and collapse, winded, in the middle of the road. Diegetic music cuts out when doors close, which is a nifty trick to reacquaint the audience in these new surroundings, while a fantasy tap dancing sequence is inventively staged to mirror a bizarre theatrical performance. The dialogue feels stagey at times, but it fits Rare Beasts’ offbeat tone perfectly. Characters frequently speak over each other or recite lengthy soliloquies punctuated by jet-black humour. At one point, Mandy delivers a truly insane pitch about Beyoncé that’s simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, exemplifying the film’s tone in a single moment.
Piper’s protagonist is a complete mess in Rare Beasts, but the writer-director-star doesn’t tie herself in knots trying to make Mandy likable. She’s primarily concerned with the dichotomy of wanting a man in your life, which is a desire Mandy, and several other women, makes clear in another of the film’s magical realist moments. It (still) feels incredibly innovative to see a group of women proudly staking claims based on their own openly contradictory wants and needs. Even the title Rare Beasts nods to how women are expected to be tough and soft at the same time. We’re expected to be all things to all people, without help and often despite pushback from the men in our lives. The execrable Pete has grown up in a family full of women, and he storms out of dinner after gentle ribbing from them, suggesting his issues run much deeper than Mandy could ever know. It’s an interesting way of underlining how men blame women for their own deficiencies, purely because they’ve been “forced” to listen to them for too long, without the film ever feeling preachy.
Piper juggles a lot in Rare Beasts. Aside from being the writer, director, and star of her first movie, she also filmed the production while seven months pregnant. The actress deftly conceals her bulging belly with bags, a laptop and even her own arms and oversized sweater at certain points too. Between Rare Beasts and Alice Lowe’s brilliant Prevenge, there might be a burgeoning market for pregnancy-themed horror movies. Weirdly, both stories are ultimately hopeful about the strides women can and will make in society, once they take control and stop settling for less than what they deserve. Although Piper’s film has an almost Safdie-esque commitment to misery, it’s also funny, smart, lovely to look at and listen to. Her vanity-free performance is so far removed from the teenager who sang “Because We Want To” that it doesn’t even feel like the same person. Evidently, Piper has found her voice in a significant way, and she’s using it to share a universal tale that unabashedly presents women as Rare Beasts.
How wonderful that a woman wrote this character, this story without fear of reproach. Maybe things really are changing for the better.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.