Starring, written and directed by Billie Piper, Rare Beasts sells itself as an anti-rom-com’ following Mandy (Piper) as she falls in some form of love with stuffy, religious traditionalist Pete (Leo Bill). Thematically, Rare Beasts doesn’t stick its landing. Because of its relatively short runtime, the anti-rom-com substance and the characters don’t quite feel fleshed out. Thrown immediately into the life of Mandy, the feature is shackled somewhat. Perhaps it’s a sense of amateurish rust given that it was Piper’s first foray into writing for the big screen.
But even then, Rare Beasts is a strong effort. As with a lot of British satire post-2000, it’s more a case of mirroring the conventions of its target as it tells the ill-fated, fleeting romance of two violently opposing personalities. Hitting every beat of the rom-com in a self-aware fashion, Piper’s takedown of that style of film is pretty accurate. Developing this love-hazed rendering of a London suburb and carving relatively one-dimensional characters, there’s a sort of arrogant, inaccessible charm. A La La Land approach to its genre. It works perfectly fine, if anything, it cultivates a higher standard of performance.
Piper makes for a strong leading presence, but comparisons only to hazy recollections of Doctor Who are not ideal. Playing the single mother looking for romance in an age where it evidently doesn’t exist, it’s the kiss of life to a line of rhetoric that’s very much a dead horse at this point. With the slightest hints of Fleabag style self-depreciation, she realises her own writing well in a performance that’s constantly wired, reflecting the constant state of pressure resting on the shoulders of Mandy put there via her day-to-day.
Where she’s the linchpin of the film, her complimenting cast are serviceable. Child star Toby Woolf was a particular highlight – an anxious child, his turn was quite endearing, offering up respite from a tone that can feel a little overly dramatic and intensley down at points. An equal to him and Piper is Leo Bill.
Bill features as the token villain of the piece by quite some distance. He’s chillingly cold and obnoxious, suiting the convention spiting script perfectly. In fact, the biggest compliment Rare Beasts can be awarded is the fact that the stars slip into their roles with ease. Bill leads the pack on that front, effectively demanding with a detestable his character, an impressive skill to possess.
Most memorable however would be David Thewlis. Playing the distant, bad father, his redemption arc draws out an incredible, melancholic turn that’s almost theatrical, aided by his booming voice, a near unhinged demeanour and an unteachable, ever-looming presence. The seasoned actor chews the scenery and adapts with ease to the many twists and turns given to him.
The surrealism was a lasting, unexpected slice of joy. Fourth wall breaks and a sudden shift to a pseudo theatrical setup drives home the final stages, a move that adds an incredible amount of depth and substance to the lead character, Mandy, who is given sole focus and share of the stage. Rare Beasts is shackled by constraints of runtime and budget, absolutely, but it is also a fine example of how to use such conventions on film and equally how to present impact and effect from doing so. Incredible directorial ingenuity reflects the authorship pertained by Piper.
Incredibly written and uniquely surrealist, Rare Beasts proves that there is still life to be had from the aged beast that is the rom-com genre. A promising debut film outing and criminally impacted by the proxy hits from the COVID-19 pandemic, the 90-minute feature is an effective slice of escapism from times that are severely lacking in joy.