Mustang opens on the last day of school. A young student cries, hugging her teacher, who gives the girl her address. The girl, Lale (Günes Sensoy), is swept up by four other girls who can only be her sisters; they have endless manes of brown hair, and they show intense comfort with each other as they tumble out of the schoolyard and onto the beach, where they splash into the water, fully clothed. It’s like the beginning of so many school-aged summers: open, beautiful, full of possibility.
But not for these girls, whose grandmother berates them when they get home. This is the moment, Lale says in one of her spare, thoughtful voiceover clips, where everything changed. Or, more precisely, when everything went to shit.
Mustang is a cautionary tale, not about being a young woman but about trying to control young women. Set in Turkey, the film takes place in the hazy space where girls become women — sometimes too early, sometimes right on time, sometimes against their wills — and shows, with devastating clarity, the limited options available to girls raised in a constrictive culture. Some get married, happily or not. Some resist. And some escape.
Turkish-French writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and her co-writer, Alice Winocour, are sparing with dialogue, smartly letting the story play out in the actions of the five sisters and the adults who lock them away in their house, which becomes a wife factory. Ergüven is careful not to demonize all the adults, some of whom find ways to help the girls; even their grandmother, so furious at the start, has valid reasons for her rush to marry them off.
Each sister watches her oncoming fate with different eyes: Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan) knows who she wants to marry. Enigmatic Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) burns with a quiet rebellion that comes from not being listened to. Ece (Elit İşcan) fights back more openly and Lale sees her resistance for what it is: dangerous. Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu) and Lale cling together, but the movie hews closely to Lale, with her pensive face and watchful eyes. As the youngest, she can get away with more, but she sees the time coming when that will change. Each of her sisters differs from the next, but their world would put them all in the same box.
It’s impossible to understate how carefully wrought that change is. Watching Mustang feels like spying: The actors are so natural, their confined existence so restless and infuriating and yet hopeful. Egüven presents each moment in the sisters’ lives with the same cool simplicity, whether it’s the triumph of a soccer match or the heartbreak of an unwanted marriage, and her respect for each high and low gives the true lows wrenching force.
There’s an almost mythic quality to Mustang, with its women locked in a tower, seeking a new way out. It’s a story both modern and timeless, an aching ode to freedom and resilience, and a stunning debut. (Broadway Metro)