By Andrea Thompson
Lately I haven’t had the best of luck with British women and their (feature) directorial debuts. First there was the godawful mess that was Romola Garai’s “Amulet,” and now Billie Piper, another fantastic actress whose work I generally enjoy, has made “Rare Beasts,” which has an even worse aftertaste. It should be a feast for the ears, given that Piper also wrote, and thus makes the most of the movie’s many quips. But her specialty here seems to be sucking much of the joy out of everything, whether it’s the characters or life itself in this distasteful offering, which bills itself as an anti-rom-com.
What Billie Piper’s single mother Mandy mainly does is make one baffling decision after another throughout “Rare Beasts,” lurching from scene to scene without too much tissue to connect them. That extends to just why she gets together with Pete (Leo Bill), a creep if there ever was one. And just when you think he’s shown some basic human decency, he and Mandy do things like get into a fight, end up slapping each other, then…plan on getting married? I’d say they deserve each other if I wasn’t so sure they’d end up making the world a darker place by remaining together. And the world’s a pretty dark place in “Rare Beasts,” with even Mandy’s young son refusing to tell his mother he loves her and nagging her about her hair and makeup, and the other women walking around alternately crazed and disgusted by how men routinely demean and objectify them. It’s enough to wonder why they don’t eschew men altogether and just fuck each other, but that might bring some small amount of happiness, which the movie seems to believe is the sole property of those young enough to have hope.
Believe it or not, that actually isn’t the most disturbing thing about “Rare Beasts,” which has certain opinions about religion that might be more regressive if they weren’t so cynical. Religion isn’t immune to the sexism the movie acknowledges so cartoonishly, but it does seem to be the only outlet left, one that allows a kind of ignorant bliss, which is apparently the only kind of joy possible. It’s a tenuous balance, but to the people unfortunate enough to populate “Rare Beasts,” it feels like a revelation. In a time when religion is often used to deprive people rather than comfort them, offering it up as a solution, however bitterly, is reactionary in the worst way, one that should know better. By the time the end arrives, things have deteriorated so much it’s hard to take any uplift seriously, what with Mandy’s persecution complex and her casual entitlement. It’s the ultimate contradiction that even nihilism has to have some kind of coherence to it, and “Rare Beasts” is just too frustratingly erratic to make anything stick.