In pretty much every romcom, there are the ‘Obstacle Men’ – the terrible dates and generally awful guys that let our heroine know who The One really is, as he rises above the sea of sexists and losers to prove himself worthy. Billie Piper’s Rare Beasts – billed, annoyingly, as an ‘anti-romcom’, whatever that means – asks the question; what if The One never showed up and you had to settle for an Obstacle Man? It makes for a bitingly honest study of modern romance, but one that’s so abrasive that all its quirks quickly become insufferable, if not borderline embarrassing.
Writing, starring, and making her directorial debut, Piper plays Mandy, a 30-something TV exec and single mother who ends up falling for – or at least convincing herself she’s fallen for – Pete (Leo Bill), a poncy chauvinist whose first-date opening gambit is ‘I find women, in the main, intolerable’. This dynamic is irritating from the off and, though there are a few grace notes and complexities, your investment in them as a couple is minimal, so their conflicts fall flat, caustic barbs exchanged without real emotion or conviction behind them, Piper’s writing often seeming designed more to score discourse points than sound like real people.
Rare Beasts owes an obvious debt to Fleabag, but any time it invites direct comparisons – such as in the frank but giggly discussions of sex or some fourth-wall breaking feminist mantra chants – the gulf in quality between this film and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s sublime TV series opens further and further. Piper gives a full-throttle, committed performance, but Rare Beasts’s dissections of the modern struggle to balance your politics and personal life and the societal compulsion to settle for shitty but semi-stable men is neither as insightful or as entertaining as Fleabag’s.
Piper finds more success as director than writer here, her stylistic sensibility incredibly confident, conjuring up visceral set-pieces that are all the more impressive for this being her first feature behind the camera. A raucous dance sequence at a destination wedding almost saves the entire film, Piper capturing a heady, drunken atmosphere that is both oppressive and deeply inviting. She also gets an impressive performance from child actor Toby Woolf as Mandy’s autistic seven year old son, though a few scenes with him do tip into outright uncomfortable territory, tonal misjudgements that are found throughout the film.
Perhaps the worst of these misjudgements comes right at the end with a horribly on-the-nose and fantastical finale that makes its points clumsily and is followed by the eyerolling title card of ‘The Fucking End’, confidence turning into smugness in a way that leaves a very sour taste. It’s the epitome of a film that thinks it has a far more interesting, original worldview than it really does, one where the cast – even the great David Thewlis, as Mandy’s reprobate father – struggles to breathe believable life into Twitter talking point-esque dialogue and a messy, unconvincing plot.