Mustang July 13, 2016
Mustang takes on the form of several genres. Sometimes it’s a human comedy, sometimes it’s a coming-of-age tale, and sometimes it’s a story of survival. At its most shocking, it’s a horror movie. It isn’t your typical telling of a group of children coming into their own: taking place in a small village in Northern Turkey, it watches as five sisters, all in different phases of their teenage years, are unfairly punished for a trivial event and are thus thrown into arranged marriages by their conservative and cloyingly sensitive parental figures.
Mustang is the filmmaking debut for Deniz Gamze Ergüven, and one gets the sense that shaping the terrors of her childhood into film (the movie is partially autobiographical) is cathartic — while anger and melancholy travels in her wake, she’s a survivor, not a victim. The film could have traveled down a much more tragic path had Ergüven dwelled too much upon its aspects of despair (it’s highly reminiscent of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides), but Mustang ultimately concludes on a hopeful note that renders it as cautiously bittersweet.
It begins rather dysfunctionally funny, but gradually morphs into something grimmer. At its start, we are introduced to a quintet of orphaned sisters (Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, and İlayda Akdoğan) as they wrap up the school year. Rather than take the usual van ride home, the girls make use of the nice day and frolic in the sun with a handful of classmates before heading home. The event itself hardly seems like anything other than playful; it’s a sweet, early summer memory for the sisters to cherish. But in the eyes of their family, the whole group is akin to a bunch of budding nymphomaniacs. Simply conversing with the male gender is unthinkable.
Worried that they’ll continue "sinning” if they keep on living the same way, the siblings’ grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) decide to turn the home into a virtual prison to keep them virtuous. They’re forced to throw their cell phones out and drop out of school. They aren’t allowed to leave the house without supervision.
Without contact to the outside world, our heroines are efficiently trapped. So things only get worse when their adoptive guardians opt to conceive arranged marriages for them, working their way down from oldest to youngest.
As things get progressively scary, the youngest of the clan, Lale (Şensoy), takes it upon herself to devise a plan of escape. While she is unable to save all her sisters from a despicable future, she might as well rescue herself and anyone who remains free from involuntary matrimony. A happy ending is on her side, but tragedy awaits the majority of the sisters she’s turned to for strength in the midst of it all.
The darker Mustang gets, though, the more it announces itself to be one of the greatest debuts of the decade. Ergüven impressively lenses the film through Lale’s point of view, its every twist more gutting because it’s so jarring, so unexpected, within the eyes of a girl not yet mature enough to see the world for what it really is. Lale, wonderfully played by Şensoy, wears optimism on her sleeve, but the world turns against her so frequently that, by the film’s end, she has no other option besides relying on herself. Şensoy, with the help of the insightful Ergüven, portrays the bleak transition from innocence to early onset cynicism with authority rather than calamity.
But for all its damning critiques of oppression at the hands of a staunchly conservative patriarchy, Mustang retains a mutinous spirit that keeps everything fiery and captivating — pessimism could have been the easier mood to present, and yet Ergüven and her astonishingly talented actresses maintain vivacity that causes us to expect every single one of the girls in Mustang to prosper. So the all too repetitious downfall of most of them hits us. Hard. But the film is poignant and impassioned in its conceptualization; Ergüven has a prospectively great career ahead of her, as does her young cast. As long as they keep taking part in works as skillfully crafted as Mustang, they should be just fine. A-