In most Western nations great strides have been made in terms of gender equality, though we’re not as far along as we’d like. But in other nations the struggle for women is greater than we can imagine. Cultural and religious constraints stifle the lives of young women as they’re groomed to be nothing more than subservient to a husband they had no choice in marrying in the first place. That’s the heart of Mustang, the new film from co-writer/director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, which tells the story of a quintet of sisters growing up in a small Turkish village with their overbearing uncle and traditionalist grandmother. Mustang is a smart, captivating piece of cinema that features a wonderful lead performance by young actress Günes Sensoy while chronicling a struggle that feels unimaginable to our own lives yet is still very prevalent throughout the world.
The film opens with school ending. Lale (Sensoy) and her sisters – Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), and Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu) – are leaving school for summer vacation. When their afterschool playing is misconstrued as being sexual in nature, the girls are reprimanded by their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and their Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). Aside from being smacked around, the girls are taken to the doctor to be thoroughly examined in order to ensure that their virginity is intact. If not, the young girls will be shunned within their village and their chances of finding a husband whittled down to nothing.
Youthful defiance firmly in their blood, the young girls reject the attempts to bottle them up within the confines of their home and sneak out at every available opportunity, sometimes for romantic dalliances and others for excursions to a local football (or soccer as it’s known in the States) game. Of course, these young girls start to push their luck and are continually discovered on their excursions. This leads to more and more security measures around their home until, as one of the girls remarks, it more resembles a prison than a home. Further attempts to confine the girls in drab clothing is met with rebellious alterations. But there’s only so long that these girls can flaunt authority before the oppressive standards of their culture takes ahold of them, each of the girls is soon courted and committed to marriages arranged by their grandmother and the family of the prospective grooms. And soon this inseparable core of siblings is slowly fractured and torn apart.
If the story of Mustang sounds like a total downer, don’t fret, dear reader, because the film is actually quite humorous and lively in its presentation. It’s such a testament to how important humor is in all forms of cinema, including heartbreaking drama. Mustang is really a testament to the persistence that is required to squash the youthful spirit to the point that preserving tradition becomes of the greatest importance. Thankfully, the young girls of Mustang aren’t willing to be set aside without a fight, especially young Lale. But Lale and the other sisters aren’t young characters being protected for their own good, they’re being repressed in order to maintain a status quo that robs the glimmer of light from the eyes of youth, to defend and indefensible tradition.
There are a few minor flaws within the film, most of which I would put on a certain angle of sexual abuse that feels as if it was just tacked on late in the film. The consequences of the abuse are powerful and do resonate, though not as much as had there been greater depth given to horrid crimes themselves. In the overall picture, however, this is an incredibly minor sin that the film easily absolves itself of through its majestic photography and human drama with a lovely sprinkling of humor.
Due to the fact that Mustang is a multinational production, it’s the French submission to the Academy Awards even though the film is in Turkish. But the external foibles don’t diminish the raw emotional power of such a magnificent film. As the young star, Günes Sensoy gives an assured performance for a girl of her age, combining the rebellion and curiosity of her character into a combustible performance. She just crackles on the screen. As the director of Mustang, Deniz Gamze Ergüven has definitely carved out a feature debut that will make her among one of the most exciting new filmmakers to watch in the coming years. There’s a wonderful balancing act to Mustang, combining the wonder and humor of youth with a truly harrowing drama that’s intensely personal. During the first 15 minutes of Mustang, I wasn’t sure that I’d warm to the film. Everything that followed didn’t only make me warm to the film, I fell in love with it.