When you see a long-time actor make the transition to behind the camera, there’s often the worry that the actor is shifting to directing and/or writing in pursuit of a vanity project. There’s an unshakable feeling the actor is moving below the line in an attempt to stroke their own ego, using their clout as a performer to realize a vision that never existed before for a reason. On the surface, Billie Piper’s directing and writing debut Rare Beasts is of the same ilk: a comedy-drama about what it means to be a dysfunctional relationship from a beloved British actress who’s had very public dysfunctional relationships.
But Piper’s debut, while ultimately unsuccessful, is a noticeably different entry in the actors-becoming-directors canon. It’s an ambitious, experimental trip into the concept of modern love that sees Piper wasting no time in trying to establish her directorial voice, admirably throwing everything she can at the wall and seeing what sticks.
Piper, who also stars as the lead character Mandy, has wrangled a hodgepodge of ideas into something messy but fascinating. Mandy is a single mother plagued by impulsiveness and self-doubt, struggling to care for her difficult young son Larch (Toby Woolf) and deal with the divorce of her spiteful, equally broken parents (David Thewlis and Kerry Fox). Love comes into her life in the form of her misanthropic, emotionally volatile co-worker Pete (Leo Bill), whose bitter outlook on life and dating somehow clicks with her chaotic nature. The film explores their budding relationship through a cocktail of impassioned monologues and biting arguments that leave contemporary romance bloodied and bruised.
It’s clear from the film’s opening moments that Piper is uninterested in the very idea of a vanity project, putting the warts of her own character and her surrounding cynics on full display. Rare Beasts feels like more of a play than a film from a first-time director, jam-packed with complex characters spitting out rapid-fire dialogue that’s always testing the limits of your patience. Breathlessly moving from scene to scene, this is a dizzying film; it has the soul and scrappiness of a much-less seasoned artist, giving it a simultaneous air of ambition and desperation.
Piper intercuts more experimental work, such as multiple scenes where Mandy walks through London hearing the insecurities of all the women around her, with ruthless scenes of emotional chess between her and Pete. While the complete picture is often a hard-to-follow mess, there are genuine moments of brilliance amongst the rubble: Piper proves herself a patient, sensitive director in moments where Mandy asserts her self-worth or tender scenes such as a reconciliation between Mandy’s parents as they look out over a sun-kissed London skyline.
Piper is stylistically ambitious as well, shooting all the madness with wild flourishes of camera work that heighten the film’s confrontational feel. Whether it’s disarmingly uncomfortable close-ups or articulating her characters’ emotions through brisk camera movements, Piper has a clear sense of what mood she’s attempting to create on-screen.
The resulting aggression thrown at the audience is overwhelming and indulgent at times, basking in a stew of unpleasantness that hammers home its purpose too loudly and too often, but it’s a bold choice for a first-time director that establishes Piper as a confident filmmaker unafraid of sharing her vision, even if it is difficult. While Rare Beasts may leave you with whiplash and a bitter taste in your mouth about love and relationships, it proves Piper to be an exciting new voice in British cinema that has to potential to craft a truly commanding, more tightly crafted work in the future.