“Rare Beasts” originally debuted in the U.K. in 2019 and was set to have its North American Premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. The COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the festival and our chance to see this quirky British “anti rom-com” in the Lone Star State. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to watch this film from the comfort of my own home. And when you get the chance, maybe you should too.
For the sake of full transparency, let me start by saying I’m not quite sure what to make of “Rare Beasts.” And given that the film currently sits at an even 50% on Rotten Tomatoes, perhaps I’m not the only critic perplexed by this film.
Written and directed by Billie Piper, “Rare Beasts” stars Piper as Mandy, a single mom who finds herself in a new romance with Pete (Leo Bill). Their first date is a disaster: They happen to work together; he’s religious and she’s not. They just don’t make sense together, and yet they find themselves in a mismatched, oddball relationship.
Are we, the audience, rooting for this romance? I have no idea. I found myself teetering between wanting them to figure it out and, at times, desperate for Mandy and Pete to put us (and themselves) out of our collective misery.
And herein lies “Rare Beasts” greatest weakness. Piper’s script is stuffed with too many ideas about relationships, sex, religion and what it means to parent and to be parented. Piper raises interesting questions about modern romance and compatibility, but there are too many questions, and the script jumps to the next conflict without fully exploring the topic at hand.
A bright spot though, is Billie Piper (“Doctor Who”) herself. Piper has long been a star in her native U.K. “Rare Beasts” marks Piper’s directorial debut, and she shines as Mandy, carrying the film on the strength of her natural charisma and likeability. She is terrific and deserves to be a household name stateside. I hope “Rare Beasts” serves as a vehicle for more audiences to discover her talent. Bill is also quite good as her love interest; he walks the line between lovable loser and jerk quite well, and you don’t get a good read on who he is until the very end. Piper and Bill have delightful oddball chemistry together, and the film is at its best in the moments when they are given the space to connect.
Another strength of the film is the exploration of Mandy as a single mother. The quiet, tender snippets in which Piper connects with her on-screen son are the most heart-warming, and they’re the moments you are left thinking about when the credits roll. Once again, it’s a shame that the script is too frantic for its own good, and doesn’t slow down long enough for us to revel in its best moments.
This is a good first effort for Piper in the director’s chair. There is an intimacy to her direction that brings out the best in all of her actors, regardless of their time on screen, like Lily James as Cressida. And yet, Piper also gives us scenes that act as bolts of energy, bringing the audience into Mandy’s chaotic state of mind as she struggles to make sense of this new relationship. It’s a credit to Piper’s direction and acting that the audience feels this push-and-pull. That feeling of wanting to be with someone, but also questioning if maybe something isn’t quite right, is palpable from the very beginning. Perhaps that’s why the audience and Mandy herself are left in a state of indecision until the very end. Piper balances these changes in tone rather well, giving us a film that is sometimes tender, yet vibrant. I’d like to see her direct again. But I hope that next time she gives herself a script worthy of her own talent.
I appreciate “Rare Beasts” for all that it tried to tackle in its tight 90-minute runtime. It has quite a lot to say about the trials and tribulations of modern dating, particularly as a single parent. If you enjoy British humor and are a fan of the growing anti rom-com genre, “Rare Beasts” is worthy of keeping you company on a Saturday movie night.
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