Many critics referred to Mustang as a kind of Turkish version of The Virgin Suicides, but director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s funny, sad and moving (and Oscar nominated) celebration of sisterhood amid the tensions of Islamic culture stands as a very fine piece of work in its own right. Comparisons with the earlier Sofia Coppola movie are pointless. Besides, Mustang is a better film.
Set in a remote village amid the Black Sea region of Turkey, five sisters decide to take a visit to the beach on their way home from school. Here they meet some boys and have an entirely innocent swim and water fight. Unfortunately this incident is witnessed by a prudish, headscarf wearing neighbour, and their “immoral behaviour” is reported to their grandmother, with whom they have lived since the death of their parents. The grandmother calls in their strict uncle, who insists that from now on a firm line be taken with the girls, some of whom are in their late teens. With that in mind, the girls are taken out of school and essentially locked in their house, where they are given training in wifely duties. Anything likely to corrupt them is confiscated – not just computers, books, western music and so on, but also art, including, rather amusingly, a postcard of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. They are then placed in arranged marriages to various boorish locals, but despite these circumstances, the girls find ingenious and inspiring ways to rebel against their predicament.
All of which might make Mustang sound terribly heavy, but despite the presence of (discreetly portrayed) teenage depression, virginity tests, child molestation and other elements of darker subject matter, the film is vibrant, colourful and full of life. There is laughter too, amid the more comical ways the girls defy their guardians (for example, a hilarious sequence in which the girls sneak out to watch a football match). There also are incidental moments of sisters just messing around together that add a seasoning of joy to the narrative. Most emphatically, the finale is a tense, thrilling act of defiance which had me inwardly cheering the girls on.
Performances are all completely convincing from the young ensemble cast, especially from Gunes Sensoy as the youngest child Lale. Oddly enough, it was her plight that moved me most. Too young to be placed in an arranged marriage (despite her amusing curiosity about boys and sex), she simply wants to get back to her studies and a beloved teacher who has moved to Istanbul. The story is largely experienced through her eyes, and so her indomitable determination becomes particularly poignant. There are narrative missteps. For example, Lale’s voiceover narration is largely superfluous, the pace is uneven at times, and one plot thread involving Lale and a grocery delivery driver seems a little contrived. However these are relatively minor criticisms.
In short, Mustang is a unique, spirited coming-of-age story, well worth a watch.