Cohen Media Group, 2015
Writer: Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Alice Winocour
Director: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
Out of 5: 4

Trailer courtesy of Indiewire:

Given the releases of Mélanie Laurent’s Breathe and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, 2015 has already been a banner year for stories of teenage girls helmed by French women. Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang, France’s official submission for the 2016 Academy Awards (though the film itself is in Turkish), is a strong, feminist tale cut from a similar cloth. Ergüven’s focus, however, is on the lives of young women living in a conservative society. It’s equal parts heartbreaking and heartwarming, thanks in no small part to Ergüven’s unique directorial voice, paired with some of the strongest child performances in years.

mustang-danceMustang centers around five sisters living in a small village in northern Turkey, cared for by their grandmother and uncle after the deaths of their parents. When a neighbor sees them innocently frolicking with a group of boys at the beach after the last day of school, she reports this to their family. The uncle, repulsed by their behavior, essentially imprisons them in their home so as not to be corrupted any further. One by one, he and their grandmother begin marrying off the girls to any available suitors, while simultaneously stripping them of their phones, computers, or any other connections to the outside world.

It’s a chain of events that, at first, comes across as almost ridiculous. At the start of the movie, the sisters are portrayed as so carefree and real that the terrible things their family eventually does to them seem impossible. The sad fact of the matter, of course, is that this kind of situation isn’t all that strange given the society they’re living in. To Western eyes, it’s nearly unbelievable that such normal teenage girls can coexist within the same household as such a repressive man. At its best, Mustang’s ability to convey what it is to be a woman in a conservative society brings to mind films like Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation.

mustang-carWhat’s just as remarkable is the girls’ spirit in the face of this awful situation. The girls are played by a group of largely non-professional actresses, who deserve heaps of praise for making all of this work. They act together almost as if a single unit, making it all the more heartbreaking as some of the girls are forced into marriage and taken away. Their interactions with one another are perfectly natural: they laugh together, cry together, fight together, scheme together. etc. Strongest of all these performances is that of Lale, the youngest sister, played by Gunes Sensoy. The story is often told from her point of view, sometimes accompanied with brief voiceover. As she sees her sisters being married off, she dreams of a life away from that house, perhaps in the more liberal Istanbul where her favorite school-teacher now lives. Lale is the glue holding the sisters together, desperately inspiring them to stand up against their uncle and the culture that allows for the way he treats them. Mustang is Sensoy’s film debut, but if there’s any justice in the world, it won’t be her last.

The movie slides easily from depressing to inspiring, and back to depressing again. In one of the film’s best sequences, the girls sneak out of the house to go to a soccer match that Lale desperately wants to see. This match is particularly special because, due to fears of violence, only women are allowed as spectators in the stadium (there’s actually a precedent for this in Turkey). The high of the girls being surrounded by like-minded women, screaming and cheering at the game, is quickly replaced with the low of the girls being forced into modest clothes and paraded around town as potential brides-to-be. It’s the rare film that leaves a viewer crushed, while still giving hope that women as strong as these sisters can rally to change the world. 

There are occasional bumps. A certain revelation about the uncle is unnecessary, and perhaps even undermines the movie’s larger theme. Not all of the sisters’ characters are developed quite so well as Lale, though in a movie more focused on the bonds between the sisters than the individuals themselves, this doesn’t amount to all that much of an issue. Ergüven’s voice is strong, and she provides a glimpse into a world that audiences (particularly American ones) don’t often get to see. Directorial debuts don’t get too much better than this.

Eli Sentman is a writer who loves serious movies and bad reality television equally. He’s on twitter @elisentman.

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