Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s generation-spanning debut is as bewildering as it is bewitching
A dying mother holds her newborn, using her last breath to warn her child of a dream she’ll have every night of “the world that was before.” In a cut, the child’s grown into Moira, eking out life in an isolated island metropolis where its inhabitants share a near hive-mind motivation to escape its shores. Another cut, and Moira’s in love. Another–she has a child of her own. And the dream of the world as it once was is passed on.
The lens-flared fleeting moments of The Wanting Mare flash by as if through a Malickian sieve, beautifully (if frustratingly) illustrating the outer fringes of a lavish and complex world it feels no need to elaborate upon. Instead, what matters in Nicholas Ashe Bateman’s debut feature is that universal drive to escape — one that, like the elusive dream passed from mother to daughter, remains a maddening constant between its diverse characters. Much like these characters, audiences will definitely respond to The Wanting Mare along a wide spectrum of confusion and devotion — depending on how willingly they surrender to its gripping yet opaque storytelling.
Set in an undetermined point in the future, The Wanting Mare tracks the inhabitants of the scorching-hot island city of Whithren in the ocean world of Anmaere, where the only goal is to leave its confining shores. The only way off the island is via a yearly barge that collects a new crop of the island’s wild horses for export to the frozen continent to the south. Tickets are scarce–and Whithren’s inhabitants are willing to fight tooth and nail to get their hands on the prized commodity. Amidst all this is a generation of women who pass on a dream of the past from descendant to descendant, both blessed and cursed with the hereditary memory of “the world as it was before.”
What’s undeniable about The Wanting Mare is the level of its creator’s ambitions — and just how often his talents match and exceed them. The film was made on a shoestring budget in New Jersey warehouses and AirBNBs festooned with green screens, and financed through crowdfunding and freelance VFX gigs on other films. Onscreen, though, you wouldn’t know it — while the film doesn’t feature, say, the gargantuan creatures of something like Gareth Evans’ Monsters, Bateman’s cast are near-seamlessly transposed into a dreamlike island world that’s brimming with dystopian verve. The effect sometimes slips into the uncanny valley, with lens flares and a shaky-cam aesthetic patching up some of the more noticeable rough edges. Even then, the overall impact heightens the sense of remove Wanting Mare’s characters have from the world around them — one where they struggle to make a difference or escape a world that seems to remain static around them, despite their best efforts. Taking on much of these techs himself, in addition to a sizable acting role in the film’s first third, The Wanting Mare is both a remarkable calling card of a debut feature for writer-director Bateman as well as a testament to the scrappy tenacity needed to see such a vision through.
But more often than not, The Wanting Mare’s beauty is as distracting as it is disarming. Scenes are rich with characters who speak in vague, stoic whispers amidst elliptical edits of streetlight-lit embraces, with little room left for more grounded scenework. Much like the strange world that exists beyond the island city of Whithren, the full extent of these characters and their relationships to each other are left at a tantalizing distance. As such, The Wanting Mare becomes a movie that you want to rewatch (as I did for this review), if only to clarify its events as much as decipher their meaning. It’s a deliberately opaque effect that’s a polarizing as it is captivating — but proves ultimately rewarding for viewers who are as into Knight of Cups as they are Blade Runner.
Even so, there’s plenty of visceral moments that are genuinely arresting, even without the CGI sleight-of-hand at work throughout. The film’s cast manages to evoke genuine tension and pathos from the material, especially the various incarnations of Moira — played by Jordan Monaghan and Christine Kellogg-Darrin, respectively. Their reactions to even the film’s more elusive stakes — mainly circling around the scarcity of life-changing tickets that guarantee passage off the island — become an emotional Rosetta Stone for the film, allowing the audience to connect and invest more into The Wanting Mare’s richly developed world when its visuals reach their understandable limitations. Coupled with the fact that virtually nothing is real in the film save for the actors themselves — this is a remarkable feat in its own right.
Its more frustrating limitations aside, The Wanting Mare is truly an exciting debut film, and is more than enough to place Nicholas Ashe Bateman on any cinephile’s radar for his next project. If the intention to further explore the oceans of Anmaere hinted in the press material is true, I hope Bateman’s return to the world of The Wanting Mare is swift and with an even larger budget to realize his vision further. After this film, I trust him to fill in what blank areas of the map there are to explore — as well as to judge what should rightfully remain an unrealized fever dream we should all collectively share.
The Wanting Mare is now available in limited theatrical release and VOD courtesy of Gravitas Ventures and Anmaere Pictures.