Writer and Director: Billie Piper
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Billie Piper’s directorial and screenwriting debut is one of the strangest films at the London Film Festival dealing with the chaotic perspective of a single mother looking for love. But in our post-Fleabag world, the protagonist is messy, flawed and not entirely likeable. Rare Beasts is weaker on plot and struggles to provide the audience with a clear way into the story, but as a director Piper shows considerable ingenuity.
As the film opens Mandy is in the middle of an awkward date with Pete whose religious views and highly sexualised conversation is uncomfortable to watch. Yet at the end of the night as Mandy vomits in the street, Pete insists she’ll marry him within the year and so begins a relationship that Mandy only stumbles into. With her seven-year-old son Larch suffering from an anxiety disorder, a mother facing cancer, an errant father and problems at work, Mandy’s life is anything but straightforward.
The most notable influence on Piper’s style are those swirling romantic French films from the 1960s, all Technicolor fantasy with a hard reality coursing through the centre as a handsome couple are caught-up in the moment and later punished for their happiness. Piper inverts the idea by making the central relationship one of crushing convenience, of two people settling for what’s in front of them but trying to make it something it clearly isn’t.
In a key sequence, they attend a wedding in Pete’s family as the exuberant bride (Lily James) extolls the wonders of marriage beneath a flower-decked marquee as the party dance frantically to a song about love. Mandy stands on the edges, an uncomfortable stranger before throwing herself in, desperately trying to fit in, to make herself feel what everyone else does… except she doesn’t really.
The audience is made to sit in Mandy’s head, experiencing her fluctuating emotions, desperate fantasies and inability to voice who she is and, in playing the title role, Piper also shows how other characters perceive Mandy, as broken, strange, dark and incomplete. The trick and the message is to own it, that no two woman want the same thing which the particularly French and slightly too pat ending rams home.
But the woozy quality of Piper’s screenplay makes it hard to invest in any of her characters, particularly the contentious central relationship. It is inexplicable that Mandy and Pete would have any kind of relationship based on their first date and very little of what follows makes them a convincing couple in any way. Leo Bill’s Pete is patronising, intolerant and at times even misogynist, which makes Mandy’s attraction to him entirely unlikely and difficult to sustain throughout the 87-minute film.
Piper as ever is an engaging lead who commands the screen in her tightly focused close-ups, creating a character that has a credible and recognisable reality, one with conflicting priorities that many women will recognise. As her son the delightful Toby Woolf steals a few scenes while David Thewlis and Kerry Fox provide underwritten support as Mandy’s dysfunctional parents.
Rare Beasts isn’t an easy or a satisfying watch, and it’s a film whose style will certainly divide audiences, but Piper creates energy on screen that intrigues as much as it perplexes. A bit more work on the screenplay and secondary characters would bolster the overall effect, but having proved herself as actor, as a director Piper is certainly one to watch.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from 2 October to 13 October