The title “Mustang” refers to the wild stallions indigenous to the region of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s beautiful Cannes award-winner, but it could just as easily apply to the untamed spirit of the sisterhood at the story’s heart. It’s a film about sexual repression, rebellion, and siblinghood in a conservative Turkish society that views femininity as something to be locked away and kept from the world. While Ergüven could have chosen to pursue the subject coldly from a distance, it’s the harsh criticism he passes on such cultures that gives the film its powerful edge.
It’s also that judgment which separates “Mustang” from Sofia Coppola’s surreal “The Virgin Suicides”, which tells a very similar tale of confined female vitality. Lale (Güneş Nezihe Şensoy), Nur (Doğa Zeynep Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit Işcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), and Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan) are five orphaned sisters whose energy and spirit is frowned upon in their community where women are to be controlled. Something as simple as frolicking in the water with a group of boys is enough to warrant harsh penalties at home, meted about by their uncle who will stop at nothing to tame them. He insists the older girls have been sexually active, something that would make them impossible to be married off to the men of his choosing. So they’re taken to get virginity tests despite their cries of innocence.
But that is just the start of the indignities forced upon these vibrant siblings. Everything from their clothing to their diet to the amount of time they are allowed outdoors is restricted; bars on the windows and doors give the appropriate sense of imprisonment. Naturally, this inspires rebellion, mostly within Lale, the youngest of the sisters. Largely through her funny and stubborn perspective we see what happens to her older siblings. Their bond is forcibly ripped apart as each is married off to one guy or another, turning the home into a “wife factory” as Lale puts it. But she doesn’t want that fate for herself, and acts out in any way she can. Some of her exploits are comical, like a risky escape to catch a soccer match which, through familial subterfuge, ends with the entire town losing electricity. Other things we experience through Lale’s eyes aren’t so fun, as not all of her sisters are equipped to handle life’s burdens the same way.
Some may take issue with Ergüven and co-writer Alice Winocour for not scouring deeper into why such cultures are able to persist, or better yet why individual families would seek to suppress the spirits of those they love. There are characters in the story who love the girls and yet enable their harsh treatment, and very little attempt is made to explain those decisions. But that also would have made for a very different film than the one we are treated to, one that allows the engaging performances of its cast to take bloom. There’s an intimacy between all of the young actresses that comes through naturally, ebbing and flowing like all sibling relationships do. In a year that has seen a number of great performances by young stars, this film can boast that it is full of them. “Mustang” could have been relentlessly grim but Ergüven finds just as many joys to go along with the pains of fighting for female independence.