RARE BEASTS, as a piece of cinema, defies explanation. Billie Piper directs, writes and stars in a film that has been described as an anti-romcom, but in some ways doesn’t really fit that moniker at all. The film centres on the character of Mandy, a single mother, examining her relationships with her family, work colleagues, and romantic interest.
One feature of RARE BEASTS that makes it so difficult to describe is that it doesn’t possess a narrative, at least in the conventional sense. It’s true that these relationships change, and develop over the course of the film, but not in one connected strand. Instead, this occurs over the course of a series of vignettes, whose relationship with reality changes. These focus variously on the difficulties of raising her son, having a career, getting on with her parents and finding love; all effectively at once. Discord is at the heart of this film, be it the playing of upbeat, carnival music over scenes of anger, or the occasional departures to abstract scenes. The latter are effective, particularly one set in a theatre, focused on the conflicting demands on Mandy’s life. Aside from Mandy herself, other characters act in a way that seems at odds with the conventional, be it an angry wedding sermon from a Vicar or the habit of Larch, her son, to break into wolf-like howls at the slightest provocation. Other characters move like rare beasts as well, their primal instincts coming to the fore in this world where inhibition is seemingly non-existent.
The nature of these internalised emotions coming out is constantly reflected throughout RARE BEASTS. On multiple occasions, the thoughts and mantras of other characters can be heard by Mandy, as they tap themselves; presumably trying to force these positive beliefs to stick even though they don’t believe them. The characters are seemingly aware of the fictional reality of their world, trying to find ways out of the oppression they find themselves in. RARE BEASTS applies significant focus to feminist and post-feminist theory as a part of this, often associated with Mandy’s demanding partner, Pete. Boiling throughout the film, it comes to a head at the film’s climactic confrontation, as Mandy has to decide who, and what, she can afford to keep in order to maintain her sanity. Though this may make RARE BEASTS seem incredibly dense, there are enough cutting remarks and biting commentary to maintain its levity. Some say it is possible to have it all, and by framing all these emotions on screen, almost simultaneously, Piper demonstrates that it’s not really the case.
With this morass of emotions portrayed by RARE BEASTS, it is sometimes difficult to follow what’s going on. As mentioned, the lack of a conventional narrative causes it to hang together somewhat loosely, which may not endear it to some viewers. However, as a directorial debut, there is much to recommend about it, from the psychedelic cinematography to the show of emotional force from its cast. Billie Piper continues to blaze a fascinating trail, and if audiences want relationship commentary that is a little less ordinary, they should look no further than RARE BEASTS.