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  • Writer's picturePerrin Faerch

Review: Rare Beasts (2021)

Rare Beasts is absolute chaos that is confrontational in its frustrations, insecurities and anxieties rattling around the head of not just the protagonist but every single one of us. Former pop star Billie Piper crashes through the ceiling with her directorial debut as a triple threat in film: Director, Writer, Star. Rare Beasts is a very loud announcement of her filmmaking talent to the world, and although it may not be the perfect debut, it’s a fierce indicator of her potential as a filmmaking powerhouse. Billie Piper plays the protagonist Mandy, a single hardworking career-driven mother. She lives with her mom at home who helps her out with the added task of raising her son, while her deadbeat, problematic dad (David Thewlis) drops in occasionally. Mandy soon finds herself falling (begrudgingly at least) in love with her traditionally-minded work colleague Pete (Leo Bill).

From the very first moments of Rare Beasts, you know you’re in for a wild, bewildering ride. The film drops us right in the middle of a date between Pete and Mandy. Think the opening breakup scene in The Social Network, or more appropriately, the opening breakup scene of Happiness. They make brutally harsh observations of each other as they size each other up. Halfway through the date, Mandy confesses she gives terrible blowjobs. Pete agrees that this is probably true as he finds her “teethy”. Off to a rocky start then. But somehow this date has set the course for their relationship going forward as Pete states they will eventually marry each other so there's no fighting or avoiding it going forward. It's inevitable. The ugly honesty sets the tone going forward with Rare Beasts. Buckle up.

“I’m going to go home and wank off to your Instagram photos. But only the ones of you with your mouth closed.”

One would be shocked at hearing this statement directed at them, hell, one should be shocked at themselves saying it. But Mandy and Pete are clearly at a point in their lives where they have essentially given up on finding the perfect partner. They're just ticking the next box on their life's to do list and unfortunately, they're willing to settle regardless of what is said and how they behave. In what would be a grand romantic gesture in any rom-com, Pete chases after Mandy as he sees her off in a cab, but he quickly gives up as Mandy watches him barely trying at all.

Mandy constantly goes through her day thinking out loud as thoughts, insecurities and anxieties constantly run away with her. She constantly reminds herself as she goes about her day, "Even though I am scared and angry, I still respect and love myself". She says this in pure defeat over and over again, hearing other woman around her going through their own self-assurances that simply aren't working for them. "Even though I am a failure, I love and respect myself!" Within the opening ten minutes, Piper has already thrown a multitude of ideas and observations she wants to converse with not only herself as a person, but us as well.

Although we are following Mandy, seeing and hearing the world through her eyes and ears, it's a world view that reflects accurately on ourselves as well. She hears what she assumes people are really thinking about her, finding ways to rationalize her unhappiness. This allows for Rare Beasts to feel like one long internal monologue, a piece of personal confrontation that violently shakes you into submission. Mandy talks to herself in moments, going from one random thought and observation to the next as each moment is laced with an ever-growing an inescapable sense of anxiety. Moments like this paints a very real and accurate representation of how I come to terms with my own thoughts by speaking out loud to myself, saying exactly what I am thinking so I can confirm that these thoughts have indeed been thought (if that makes sense). These insecurities and anxieties are amplified further at a later stage when Mandy decides to peel the layers to herself emotionally and physically to Pete:

“I want to unveil myself to you one piece at a time so I can get used to you seeing me naked. So I can talk you through what I hate physically about myself”.

She removes pieces of her clothing as she describes and shows each part of herself, laying all her cards out on the table. Pete on the other hand berates and judges her with a hateful resentment that could very easily be how he feels about himself. It's effectively the film's most intimate and unconventional type of sex scene. It's such a relatable and accurate observation of how we let our insecurities about ourselves dictate terms within a relationship and how we see ourselves, and unfortunately in Mandy's case, Pete is anything but supportive. She makes herself vulnerable at every turn while he refuses to do the same. It's an effective scene that shows the give and take that should exist in a relationship, but unfortunately it's only Mandy who appears to give in to his shortcomings and just allow Pete to dictate terms by making himself at home. "We should go and see people being happy", Pete suggests. They sit on the boardwalk, she tries to rest her head on his shoulder but he takes her head and pushes it away, eventually holding her head up and forcing her where to look. They've already settled. It's inevitable now. She's trapped. No use in fighting it. Just go with the flow.

Billie Piper not only creates harsh moments of observational humour highlighting relationships, but she also draws attention to the hypocritical values of those around us. Pete identifies as a traditionalist, a Christian. He doesn’t like the fact that Mandy is a single career-driven mum with a child who is essentially an extension of her own anxieties. He claims to be religious but can’t seem to pray without trying to find the ideal words to make him seem more pias. He’s a hateful, resentful man-child who is the anti-love interest, the anti-family man that is anything but the "good Christian" he insists that he is. He throws wild tantrums in public just like her son, running away from the responsibilities that come with being in Mandy’s life.

The film is shot, edited and scored with an appropriately hyperactive anxiety. The camera swirls with each hypothetical fight, argument, freak-out and thought bustling about with music that has the same level of angular discomfort of a Jon Brion score in a Charlie Kaufman or PT Anderson movie. The specific energy and pace of Rare Beats is reminiscent of early PT Anderson, most notably that of his intoxicating romance of Punch Drunk Love, as well as the same melancholic sadness and strangeness of Kaufman’s work. Much like Punch Drunk Love and a majority of Kaufman’s output, Rare Beasts feels like the anti-romance as it goes against the grain of what you expect within the genre. It's odd and uncomfortable, yet it has all the setups and traditions of a typically sweet, crowd-pleasing romantic comedy, on paper at least. But Rare Beasts doesn’t just choose to go in the opposite direction of clichéd romcom plots and tropes, it sprints away from it, tripping over itself as it drags its bloodied legs over the finish line. The sheer unpredictability of each plot and character beat makes Rare Beasts all the more dizzying as anxiety constantly buzzes in your head like a swarm of the angriest fucking bees.

Billie Piper clearly has a lot to say about relationships, self-worth, the hypocrisy of values, co-dependency, etc. Her dialogue is phenomenal. It’s hysterical and sad in equal measures as she composes scenes and interactions of brutal honesty that would make any of us wince in our seats. But this is where Rare Beast’s obvious intelligence tends to run away with itself. Every moment is so smartly written and realized, but it actually gets exhausting as every single line of dialogue, every scene and every tiny moment sometimes finds itself overcrowded in meaning and metaphors. She doesn’t let us work hard enough in unpacking and figuring out things ourselves as the film shoves our noses in it, barely giving us a chance to take a breath and soak it in before we are rushed into the next moment. And although these moments are often ingenious in execution, performance and dialogue, Rare Beasts could've benefited in showing a little more restrain and not constantly bombard and suffocate us in the cleverness of it all. However, it's understandable why Billie Piper opted for this, as it serves as an urgent wake-up call to the character of Mandy and the viewer as well. Creatives like Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Michaela Coel balance nuance and abrasiveness so well, choosing the perfect times to snipe us after patient build-ups through theme, character and plot developments instead of unloading entire clips on us at every waking moment. It’s still wildly entertaining, skillful and absolutely bonkers filmmaking, that often had me saying “this film is fucking crazy”. That's still a damn good thing. Piper’s internal thoughts and observations of the themes found within the world around her characters is still wholly original, placing her among the likes of Waller-Bridge and Coel in unique, booming, necessary voices coming out of the UK right now.

The performances are appropriately biting, ugly and earnest in equal measure. Billie Piper’s Mandy is tragically insecure and vulnerable as we see her desperately trying to discover what she needs as opposed to what everyone expects her to do. It's a performance that feels authentic and true to herself as both Mandy and Billie Piper respectively. Her intentional lack of chemistry, desperation and resentment towards Pete is also expertly worked and picked apart by both herself and her co-star Leo Bill as they draw clear lines in the sand that speaks true to their characters and their intentions. Leo Bill’s Pete is absolutely despicable in all the best ways, closely resembling bits and pieces similar to Mandy’s toxic father, who brings an additional level of assurance in the performance department by the still wildly underrated David Thewlis, pushing Mandy to take a long hard look at where her future is heading and what needs to be done for not only her son, but herself as well.

Rare Beasts is a wildly original spin on the traditional rom-com, but sometimes finds itself getting dizzy on its own abrasiveness as it attempts to reflect on itself far too often. However, it still remains as an effective piece of confrontational filmmaking that is deeply personal and necessary - coming face to face with the anxieties and irrational insecurities that holds both us and Mandy back from doing what is necessary and what is right for ourselves, making Rare Beasts completely successful in its intent and purpose. It's equal parts bold, brilliant, disorientating, tiring and at times, frustrating filmmaking that still makes it a thrilling character study of self-worth you should definitely seek out.

Where you can watch it: Curzon Home Cinema, BFI, and most VOD platforms (UK)

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