Written by: Heidi Shepler | August 19th, 2021
Rare Beasts (Billie Piper, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.
The greatest success of actress Billie Piper’s directorial debut, Rare Beasts is its exploration of intimacy in modern relationships—romantic, familial, professional, religious—not through its presence, but through its absence. Its weakness, by contrast, is that it captures a cultural moment that seems already past: the pre-COVID, nihilist evisceration of romance. The characters’ privilege and self-absorption are uncomfortably realistic, but their romance woes feel petty after two years of global isolation and loss.
Mandy (Piper, Eternal Beauty) is a deliciously unreliable narrator: an endearing, frustrating, sometimes-almost-antihero. We meet her towards the end of an incredibly bad date. Pete (Leo Bill, In Fabric) is combative, insensitive, and domineering. They disagree vehemently about everything they discuss, including gender politics and religion. “You’ll marry me within a year,” he declares as they leave the restaurant, while she vomits and moans in despair.
The rest of the film takes place over the course of their relationship, and what a toxic, miserable relationship it is! It’s impossible to say what draws these two to each other; their philosophical differences are never resolved, and while Piper and Bill’s chemistry is great, the two characters only truly seem to spark with attraction when saying cruel things to each other. They don’t even make eye contact when they’re not fighting. In fact, eye contact is remarkably scarce all around in Rare Beasts. This makes for a subversive, destabilizing viewing experience, in addition to the touches of surrealism that are woven throughout the film.
Mandy strays farthest into antihero territory in her relationship with her son, Larch (Toby Woolf). She tells him that she loves him many times, but she’s also neglectful and distracted; in one scene she avoids a family confrontation by meeting up with friends to snort lines of cocaine, and in other scenes she repeatedly ignores that Larch is almost certainly on the autism spectrum. She simply can’t handle her son’s needs, so she appeases him as much as she can and ignores him the rest of the time. That said, Larch is always treated by the film, itself, as a person, not a problem. He’s a lovely child who has tantrums brought on by sensory and emotional overload, not a screaming brat with a bad mother. The distinction is important because it makes his struggles all the more tragic.
It’s hard to say whether Rare Beasts is a tragedy in its own right. The cycle of dysfunction in Mandy’s family is long-standing, and it’s only at the climax that she lets us see a glimmer of how she grew into the person she is now. The conclusion seems to suggest that Mandy and Larch can break free of that cycle, and I hope that’s true. But because it only happens at the very end, and because other happy moments end in disaster, I’m not as confident as I might be. This is a complicated, uncomfortable film. The questions it raises are more valuable than any individual answers.