“Mustang” begins innocently enough. The school day ends for five orphaned sisters. The youngest girl and the film’s main protagonist Lale (played by Gunes Sensoy) is giving a teary-eyed goodbye to her favorite teacher who is leaving their small Turkish village for Istanbul. On the way home the five girls take a detour and have playful outing in the sea with some local boys.
But co-writer and first time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven wastes no time peeling back the many complex layers to her story. The townsfolk believe the girls to be unruly and promiscuous and are quick to judge their swim with the boys. By the time they get home their grandmother and guardian (Nihal Koldaş) has heard the neighbors’ salacious rumors and physically punishes the girls despite their pleas of innocence.
That opening event sets the table for the film’s main idea – five young sisters coming of age in a hyper-conservative, religiously stringent home. With each conflict their home becomes more of a prison both literally and figuratively. Ergüven’s honest portrayal doesn’t skirt around the physical and emotional hardships each girl experiences. We still get those playful and warm moments between them, but we are quickly reminded of how painfully serious and heart-wrenching their situation is.
One thing “Mustang” does so well is give all five sisters their own identity. This works thanks to great attention to personal detail in the writing and fantastic performances all around. Lale is the youngest and serves as our eyes and ears. Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) is a fireball and closest to Lale’s age. Ece (Elit İşcan) is the sister who often languishes in her middle child status. Next is Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) the rebellious one who sneaks out of the house with no regard of consequence. And last is Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) the quiet and reserved one who as the oldest girl faces the brunt of punishment.
So many variables factor into the lives these girls are forced to live. The village’s strict religious tradition strips the girls of nearly every youthful experience they long for. It may be a trip to a soccer match or simply falling in love. Their vile uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) is even worse – verbally berating them, subjecting them to medical virginity tests, barring their windows, and in some instances far worse.
“Mustang” can be intensely uncomfortable and its bleakness often clouds any hint of optimism. But Ergüven never abandons hope. In many ways “Mustang” is a celebration of the youthful spirit and spotlights the longing for personal freedom and independence. That is what kept me glued to the story and emotionally bound to these young girls. That is what would sadden me in one scene and then have me laughing out loud a few scenes later.
Few movies have held my heart in its hands like “Mustang”. As the film moved forward I found my affections for the five girls growing. As a result I experienced joy, sympathy, shock, outrage, despair, and hope, all within Ergüven’s dramatic scope. “Mustang” is earnest, authentic, and brave enough to challenge specific social norms without a heavy hand. But it always comes back to five young girls desperate to experience life. That focus is what made “Mustang” such an extraordinary film.
VERDICT – 5 STARS