Billie Piper’s feature debut as writer-director is a peculiar “anti-romcom” – a post-Fleabag-era tale of dysfunctional male/female relationships, tinged with musical fantasia and built around bitterly comedic theatrical dialogue. Boosted by an exceptional cast, and sharing an edgy energy with Piper’s recent TV hit I Hate Suzie, it’s an ambitious, nervy work that occasionally trips over its own stylistic heels, but still proves, as Buzz Lightyear famously discovered, that flying is essentially falling with style.
Piper stars as Mandy, a single mum, living with her own mother, Marion, played by the great Kerry Fox. Career-minded Mandy is described as an “angry, seething” presence, who, as a child, would write love letters interspersed with death threats. Now she is raising a son, Larch (Toby Woolf), beset by anxious tics. In an attempt to quell her innate self-loathing, Mandy repeats an unconvincing mantra (“Although I am scared and angry, I still love and respect myself”), while urgently tapping her temples. By contrast, the chain-smoking Marion has retreated into world-weary resignation, her sly half-smile a mix of defiance and defeat.
On a toe-curling dinner date with uptight workmate Pete (Leo Bill, who proved so weirdly mesmerising in In Fabric), Mandy learns that he is a man “of faith” who finds women intolerable, but refuses to be without one. Mandy replies sardonically that he sounds like a classic rapist. It’s hard to disagree. Yet after vomiting in the streets, she embarks upon a laceratingly awkward and somewhat masochistic relationship with Pete. “I want to unveil myself one piece at a time,” she tells him, “so that I can talk you through what I physically hate about myself.”
Perhaps Mandy is drawn to Pete because he fills a void left by her father Vic (David Thewlis), an equally testing character whose bitterness and regret turn a smile into a sneer. Elsewhere, Pete seems like nothing more than another child, joining Larch in limb-flailing fits of public rage. In the end, it’s Mandy’s own battle to define who she is, and what she really really wants, that is centre stage.
Piper and Thewlis recently worked together on Craig Roberts’s Eternal Beauty, a darkly comedic but also empathetic portrait of schizophrenia, inspired by a much-loved member of Roberts’s family. There are stylistic similarities between Roberts’s acclaimed film and Piper’s off-kilter oddity, which also seems to draw on the film-maker’s personal history. Yet Pete (who seems like a distant cousin of Adam Sandler’s character from Punch-Drunk Love) and Mandy are both clearly emblems of a wider 21st-century crisis, existing in a hyper-real state of near-panic, on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
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At times, the dreamy/nightmarish stylistic tics can prove alienating, prioritising the performative over the personal elements. Yet there’s something alluring about the relish with which Piper and Bill sink their teeth into the gleefully overwrought script, particularly during the putative couple’s verbal sparring matches, during which deadpan sparks fly.
Underneath it all there’s an agitated discussion of women’s liberation (Lily James’s Cressida describes herself as a “post-post-post-feminist”), leading towards a deliberately jumbled declaration of desires that is heartfelt, desperate and – crucially – comically undercut by a Greek chorus of disapproval. Mandy may be an uncertain character (whom the director now says she wishes she had cast someone else to play) but Piper clearly has the vision and confidence to carve out a career behind the camera.
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