SXSW Review: Rare Beasts

Year: 2020
Runtime: 90 minutes
Writer/Director: Billie Piper
Stars: Billie Piper, Leo Bill, Toby Woolf, Kerry Fox, David Thewlis, Lily James

By Mique Watson

“I give really bad blowjobs” laments Mandy (writer/director/star Billie Piper) on a first date as “Rare Beasts” opens. Mandy, a clearly agitated yet quirky woman prone to over-analyzing herself sits across her work colleague, Pete (Leo Bill). He postulates that he is religious that “modern women have more testosterone coursing through their veins than blood”.

Mandy’s response? She ends the date by sprinting across the street and regurgitating the dinner they had just had onto the sidewalk. This is the best indicticator of the tone to follow: a blend of cringe-inducing, self-deprecating, visual humor confidently presented through a woman’s unfiltered vision. This is a wonderfully stylish and brave film that offers a new and unique perspective on the role of the modern woman in today’s society.

This is a voice so not beholden to studio intervention; a voice so distinctly female, and so particularly uncaring of conventional mainstream films to do with women. It is as if Piper is flipping the bird at cultural expectations of women–from both an archaic, and progressive standpoint–and yelling back, with gusto that “I refuse to be put in a box; I am me”.

“It is as if Piper is, through this drama, having an empathetic conversation with a unique, modern woman. Just when you think Mandy is going to respond with something that will please the world around her, she doesn’t. Not all modern women, Piper posits, think with a hive mind.”

Mandy is a career-driven and loving single mother to seven-year-old Larch (Toby Woolf); both of them live with her mother Marion (Kerry Fox), who has an on-and-off relationship with her ex-husband (a strikingly comical, yet dramatic David Thewlis). We try to pinpoint specifically why Mandy is so unbalanced, only to eventually conclude that the problem isn’t entirely familial; it’s societal. This is a society which tells women they can only ever be stable and career-driven if they’re childless and single; one which asserts that the only alternative to this is being subservient to a man.

Mandy is, to use one of today’s jazziest colloquialisms, a hot mess. There are so many enthralling contradictions to her: she’s headstrong yet unmotivated, crass yet fortiduous, and assertive yet agreeable. She works in TV production; thus, spends her professional life in a boardroom pitching personal ideas–which get constantly rejected–to a team dominated by men.

rare 2
Billie Piper in Rare Beasts (2019) © Western Edge Pictures

“This is a voice so not beholden to studio intervention; a voice so distinctly female, and so particularly uncaring of conventional mainstream films to do with women. It is as if Piper is flipping the bird at cultural expectations of women.”

This is a film about having had it with the notion that women should fit into contrived, collective stereotypes of themselves. Piper pushes back against both archaic perceptions of women as submissive housewives, and as trademark strong modern women who are not allowed to seek emotional companionship with men. Collectively, society as a whole–even unconsciously so–denies the individual realisms of women who refuse to box themselves into either binary. This breeds insecurity and uncertainty in the hearts of women who, like Mandy, have difficulty realizing that validation comes from within the self; that we should care fuckall about what others think will be best for us.

We see rollicking interactions between Mandy and her coked-up friends one night; frank discussions about sexual anxieties and common expectations in life. It’s so raw, so real, so casual that you nearly forget how unique it is in the realm of today’s (or, heck, even yesterday’s) cinematic landscape. Each of these women offer warm reassurances to one another that it’s okay to not have it all figured out–that you’re not alone in having certain anxieties and sky-high expectations of yourself.

rare beasts

Later on, we get to learn more about the dynamic between Mandy and the insufferable Pete. Pete seemingly has no idea how his grandstanding and idealistic posturing makes Mandy feel. Conversely, empathetic Mandy has no idea on how to call him out on it (whether she eventually does is something I’ll let you find out). He tells her that he enjoys the idea of her being vulnerable; his desire for vulnerability echoes back to his religious upbringing. When he eventually takes her home to meet his family, over dinner we realize just how this idealistic religious framework has made a negative impact on the women in his life. Perhaps it shouldn’t be as ironic that most of the people on this dinner table are women.

Mandy and Pete are two broken people both trying to figure out this mess called life. As the story unfolds, we realize that Pete has caged himself into the cell of his ideology; unsurprisingly, religious ideologue Pete is the judgmental and toxic one in the relationship. Pete refuses to acknowledge this, yet Mandy comes to realize that this whole mob mentality he and his family operate in are as “cultish” as the side she supposedly fits more into.

There are particular moments of catharsis when Mandy begins to respond to the world around her with forthright bluntness. A bluntness which leads her to come to the conclusion that before trying to fix someone else, you should first seek to understand and accept yourself and all the quirks that come with you.

Mandy isn’t interested in Pete’s hollow, self-centered sympathy; she simply wants equality. It is as if Piper is, through this drama, having an empathetic conversation with a unique, modern woman. Just when you think Mandy is going to respond with something that will please the world around her, she doesn’t. Not all modern women, Piper posits, think with a hive mind. Why must any woman be boxed into either extreme? Why must a woman live a lifestyle in accordance with what either side deems to be conventional?

4.5 stars

 

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