Set in a Turkish village where an ill sea breeze blows, “Mustang” tells the story of five sisters who band together in rebellion when family members imprison them and proceed to marry them off in a horrifically misguided attempt to save them from sin. This debut feature from writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven is an imperfect but exquisitely angry and stirring coming-of-age fairy tale, escape thriller and condemnation of societies that rob women of their opportunities and dreams.
Erguven, who was born in Turkey but has lived mostly in France, has made a Euro-style drama that suggests Dardenne or postwar neorealist influences, while its theme of female emancipation reflects her response to the conservative tide that has taken hold in Turkey. Cowritten with Alice Winocour, the story suggests a Turkish “Virgin Suicides” with bits of “The Wolfpack” and “Pride and Prejudice” folded in.
Twelvish protagonist Lale (Gunes Sensoy) and older teenage sisters Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) and Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) celebrate the end of the school year by splashing in the sea with male classmates. A neighbor interprets their innocent frolicking as indecent behavior and reports this to the girls’ grandmother (Nihal Koldas), who has raised the orphaned sisters.
Overreacting, the grandmother and the sisters’ uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) drag the girls to the doctor for virginity inspections, lock them in the house, confiscate their cellphones and computers and other objects deemed corrupting, and force them to wear hideous brown dresses. Aunts teach the girls to be homemakers. After the sisters escape from the house to attend a soccer game, their elders install bars on the windows.
Worse, still, are the neighbors who arrive with their unhitched sons. When deals are made for the boys to marry the older sisters, the younger sisters, led by Lale, hatch an escape plan.
The film isn’t without frustrations. Erguven’s naturalistic tone doesn’t allow for the dramatic buildup that a particularly tragic development requires. Erol is a caricature. Some of the sisters are sketchily defined.
But Erguven does many things wisely and beautifully and is terrific with atmosphere.
And for all the hardships the movie depicts, the drama is surprisingly engaging. Quietly but powerfully, Erguven condemns the mentalities that seek to quash female independence and equality.
Drawing convincing performances from a mostly nonprofessional cast, Erguven has created heroines who are not mere imprisoned Disney princesses. As they giggle at the dinner table, enjoy a short-lived blast of freedom at the soccer game or deal individually and collectively with the futures arranged for them, they’re very sympathetic, and their predicament is absorbing.
The suspense during the climactic escape sequence, which involves a long-haired male accomplice (Burak Yigit) and fellow rebel spirit, is impressive.
Three and a half stars
Starring Gunes Sensoy, Nihal Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu
Written by Deniz Gamze Erguven, Alice Winocour
Directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes