The opening of “Rare Beasts,” the ambitious new film on VOD starring Billie Piper, who also wrote and directed, is the tail end of the worst date of all time. Over a dinner and a glass or two of wine TV writer Mandy (Piper) and over-confident Pete (Leo Bill) butt heads, discussing everything from his ultra-traditional view of women as a wives and mothers, to the size of her teeth. It appears he doesn’t really like women, but can’t imagine his life without one by his side. Or, at least, in his kitchen and bedroom.
They are oil and water, chalk and cheese. In a rom com, this would be an example of exactly the kind of misogynist bottom-of-the-barrel person Mandy should shun until Mr. Right comes along, particularly after Mandy snaps back after one of his outbursts, “Those are classic rapist remarks.”
But “Rare Beasts” is no rom com. It feels more like a thriller, because Mandy and Pete’s first meeting is so awful, as time ticks on, you’ll be on the edge of your seat wondering what will happen between them.
Mandy is the insecure single mother of Larch (Toby Woolf) who attempts to tame her negative thoughts with a Stuart Smiley-style mantra, “Even though I am scared and angry, I still love and respect myself.” The disastrous date is the beginning of a strained relationship, born out of insecurity and now small amount of self-loathing. “I want to unveil myself one piece at a time,” she says, “so that I can talk you through what I physically hate about myself.”
Despite their complete incompatibility and Pete’s claim of finding women “intolerable,” the pair struggle through a relationship, driven by dysfunction. She visits his parents on holiday in Spain and they even discuss marriage.
“Rare Beasts” has audacity on its side. Piper populates the film with difficult characters, neurosis and up-close-and-personal shots of Mandy that almost peer inside her head to reveal the character’s inner chaos. It is confrontational in its treatment of the form—perhaps we’ll call it a non rom com—and its characters, who are almost as disconnected as the storytelling.
Piper bolts through the story, slowing every now and again to focus on memorable scenes, like a party of coke-snorting new mothers, or taking a detour into more darkly whimsical moments. The result is a dizzying, off kilter film that paints a modern picture of feminism while establishing Piper as a fearless (and often quite funny) filmmaker.