Billie Piper, the writer, director, and star of the black comedy Rare Beasts, is best known to American audiences for playing Rose Tyler, companion to the ninth and tenth Doctors on the revival of Doctor Who. More recently, she co-created and starred in HBO Max’s I Hate Suzie, an engrossing, frequently thought-provoking eight-episode exploration of the challenges, conflicts, and contradictions of being a woman today. Rare Beasts covers similar thematic territory, yet its feature-length format, experimental flights of fancy, and pile-up of storylines add up to a chaotic, unfocused experience.
Piper portrays Mandy, a TV writer and mother to a young son with special needs named Larch (Toby Woolf), who starts dating Pete (Leo Bill), a man who has no compunction about telling Mandy the negative things he thinks about her, while also confidently declaring they’ll be married within a year. Despite his questionable treatment of her and hostility toward modern women in general, Mandy – scared, angry, and hopelessly focused on her flaws despite spouting affirmations about loving and respecting herself – commits to Pete, even introducing him to her son and meeting his family.
At the same time, Mandy is navigating difficult relationships with her working-class parents. She lives with her mother Marion (Kerry Fox) who continues to regularly spend time with her dishonest, unfaithful father Vic (David Thewlis), years after their divorce. When Marion is diagnosed with terminal cancer, Mandy’s life devolves further, forcing her to consider what she really wants from the various parts of her life. This leads her to voice her most uncomfortable thoughts and feelings to a Greek chorus of modern women who don’t approve of her perspective.
Rare Beasts is almost entirely told from Mandy’s perspective, and as a result there are many scenes where it’s hard to discern what’s real and what’s filtered through Mandy’s imagination. Yet at the same time, it never feels like we know much about Mandy outside of her insecurities and fears. It’s never clear why she puts up with Pete’s behavior, how she feels about the challenges of raising Larch, or even what drives her. Consequently, it’s hard to feel sympathetic for the character even when she says out loud what many women today likely feel about their myriad and conflicting responsibilities.
Meanwhile, the film’s impressionistic style makes the story difficult to follow. Although some of the metaphors the story employs land – such as a scene in which a young Mandy tap-dances for her only sporadically interested family – they also often feel tangential instead of a way to further delve into the characters and their situations. So, despite touching on relevant and important themes, Rare Beasts only seems to skim the surface of them.
Piper has already proven she’s a fantastic actor. In I Hate Suzie, for example, she simultaneously conveys multiple, often contradictory emotions as her character navigates a fraught career and marriage. While she brings the same level of commitment to Mandy, the nuances of her performance don’t have the same impact in Rare Beasts. Instead, the movie feels bloated and sprawling, lacking the focus that would enable it to convey a meaningful message. That said, Piper shows promise as a director in this debut, and it will be interesting to see what she chooses to do next with the unique style and point of view she demonstrates here.