Growing up can be tough. For Lale and her four older sisters, the central characters of Mustang, it is practically dehumanizing. In this winning debut feature from director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, the typical coming of age tropes are imbued with an uncommon sense of dread, resulting in a poignant film about sisterhood and female empowerment.
We meet the sisters at the start of summer. School’s out and like any teenager, they just want to play. As they make their way home, they take a detour to the beach with their friends (both male and female). Splashing about in the water, they engage in innocent horseplay. But in the eyes of their conservative Turkish village, their actions are perceived as scandalous frolicking with boys. Soon, the girls are taken out of school and locked up at home in what one of them describes as “a wife factory”. And sure enough, the girls are trained to become subservient wives, learning how to cook and clean before being sent off into marriages arranged by their elders. Appalled by this sudden twist of fate, Lale is determined to save her sisters from a probably miserable future. But the overwhelming force of their oppressive culture may be too hard to overcome.
Ergüven and co-writer Alice Winocour tread familiar “rebellious girls just wanna have fun” territory in the plot’s early stages. Indeed, though the girls are grounded indefinitely, their confinement isn’t exactly ironclad. As such, the girls manage to engage in the covert sexual trysts and mischievous pranks typical of American teen comedies.
But their smiling faces are deceptive, as the film gradually finds surer – and more distressing – footing as it digs into the specifics of this culture. Early on, we learn that the girls are orphans placed under the care of their uncle and grandmother. And this pair emerges as stalwarts of the society’s oppressive customs, representing the patriarchy and the older generation respectively. Ergüven refrains from caricatures however, focusing on the more insidious effects of their archaic attitudes. We never witness any severe physical abuse, but the film still horrifies as the girls are stripped of their individuality and endure various forms of humiliation.
Shrewdly, Ergüven puts us in the mindset of the youngest sister Lale, who must watch as her family and support system is torn apart, fearfully awaiting her turn to be married off like a prisoner on death row. And newcomer Günes Sensoy has effortless screen presence in this role as audience surrogate, brilliantly portraying the film’s most fascinating and memorable character. Heroic and precociously wise, Lale becomes one of the best-written roles for a child actor in years.
In refusing to sensationalize the societal issues at hand, Mustang takes a while to achieve its full impact. But Ergüven’s understated direction compellingly builds to a cathartic conclusion, assisted by Warren Ellis’ plaintive score. As this sophisticated filmmaking – and the numerous awards – indicates, Mustang heralds the arrival of a promising new talent in world cinema.
Mustang is currently playing in select theaters.