Billie Piper's directorial debut, the "anti-romcom" Rare Beasts, has been sprung from the shelf it's been sitting on for 18 months by distributors given renewed confidence by Promising Young Woman's Oscar success. (It's sat there for so long Piper starred in another late entry in the so-called "messy women" cycle, Sky One's I Hate Suzie, in the interim.) The mixed reviews the film has received over the weekend turn out to be almost everything you need to know about it. Here is a film that sets out to sound like fingernails down a blackboard, and does indeed succeed in sounding like fingernails down a blackboard, but still only ever sounds like fingernails down a blackboard; it's equally stimulating and aggravating, and the further away I get from the awful cacophony of actually sitting through it, the greater my admiration for Piper's refusal to play things safe. At base, it's yet another hand grenade lobbed into our seemingly endless online sex wars. Women are represented by Piper's Mandy, a muttering single mother with some sort of media job and underlying anger management issues. In the male corner: Pete (Leo Bill), a colleague, who has Ideas About Women, a very specific idea about the place Mandy should occupy in his life, and ideas besides about the way she should raise her son. As a fractious first date establishes, these two can barely stand the sight of each other, yet for whatever reason - horniness, parents who've set bad examples, because they realise they're equally poor company, the ticking of the mortal clock, or to support some cockeyed thesis about the modern dating game - they hook up, and remain at one another's throats for more or less the entirety of the film. We're the ones that have to suffer the fallout.
Those next ninety minutes will suggest or confirm the following. One: latter-day Piper has a great face for the movies (or television, or anything, really), with features that fill the frame and scarcely let up. Two: she has a pretty good feel for what to do with her camera, a quality far more consistent and successful debuts haven't always made clear. With cinematographer Patrick Meller, she pulls off a sly subversion of the Richard Curtis look, heading out into a sunny, multicoloured London that - in this instance - just happens to be chockablock with abject nutters, a brightly padded cell. I'm not sure the writing here has enough wit to offset the sourness inherent in this set-up, however, and Piper's work with her performers also betrays signs of inexperience. The title hints at what she's going for: a kind of human zoo. What that translates to on screen is this: actors who need zero excuse to play eccentric (Bill, Kerry Fox, David Thewlis) are let loose, encouraged not so much to read their lines as fill each scene with variably irritating noises. There's a lot of conflict, much of it forced, ranging from pass-agg crosschat through ugly verbals to unbridled hollering, yet you sense Pete and Mandy have to be pushed towards opposing positions on the gender spectrum because there's no other way for Piper to sustain a relationship that wouldn't go beyond ninety seconds in the real world. Was she trying to get something - or someone - out of her system? Rare Beasts does keep circling the purgative: clock the explosive conclusion to Pete and Mandy's first date, or the way the words come flooding out of their mouths. They can't hold anything in. That makes for an unusual Britpic (there's never any subtext to play), and for a first film that proves a little feistier than all those that have determined to make nice. The trouble - and Piper's gone looking for it, for better and worse - is that it's really not all that much fun to watch: no more enlightening or edifying, ultimately, than watching someone blow chunks at the bus stop.
Rare Beasts is now screening in selected cinemas, and available to stream via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player.