“Mustang” – “Time misspent in youth is sometimes all the freedom one ever has.” – Anita Brookner
For five giggling, smiling and likable sisters – ranging in ages roughly between 9 and 16 – they “misspend” their time like any other group of schoolgirls. On one particular day after school – in their small, coastal Turkish town – the girls run with some schoolboys to a nearby beach. Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Ece (Elit Iscan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), Lale (Gunes Sensoy), and the boys splash in the water, play some harmless chicken fights, argue, laugh, and showcase the unspoiled exuberance of youth in the Black Sea which seems terribly named, because the water is a lush and inviting electric blue.
As innocent as this short diversion was, a local neighbor’s perception of the afternoon’s event is quite the opposite, and the girls’ grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) beats them and calls their behavior obscene. Very soon after, Grandmother and Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) retaliate with heavy doses of censorship and turn their house into a rudimentary prison.
In director/co-writer Deniz Gamze Erguven’s movie, she spins a heartbreaking tale of the struggle between child and adult and freedom of expression and oppression better than any other film that I can remember. Whether we see the girls smile on the back of a moving pickup truck, cheer with crazed delight at a football game or lay on the floor of their bedroom with limbs tangled and knotted in a close and snickering pile of humanity, the girls are bright, wide-eyed kids with oceans of internal hope.
Erguven contrasts this spirit with the heavy-handedness of discipline and repression in the name of tradition. Grandmother and the girls’ aunts give cooking and sewing lessons and force the sisters to wear shapeless, brown dresses, but the stakes soon become infinitely more serious and upsetting, to both the girls and the movie audience. Yes, if Grandmother and Uncle Erol have anything to say about it, the joy of childhood is over.
Lale, the youngest sister, appropriately calls the house a “wife factory”, and it is not lost on anyone that the boys – at the Black Sea – are not struggling with a similar “husband factory”.
Looking up the definition of “Mustang”, it states: an American feral horse, typically small and lightly built, and this leaves little doubt that the film’s title refers to the collective five sisters. Not only do Grandmother and the aunts attempt to reprogram the girls’ behavior, but they also try to tame the girls’ long, chestnut hair. The kids feel themselves when their locks are left wild and free, but unfortunately for them, the condition of their hair is the least of their problems. No escape seems possible, and a much more modern and bustling Istanbul is a thousand kilometers away, but it might as well be a million.
The girls’ plight is terribly serious, and Erguven offers a very real and raw front-row seat for the audience. Using a handheld camera to give a first person’s perspective, she communicates the aforementioned contrast between freedom of expression and oppression and then fastens an effective emotional tie from the sisters to us. All of the young actresses deliver convincing performances, as their characters respond to their repressive environment in varying ways with Lale – somewhat ironically – driving the most protest.
Through it all, Erguven delivers one of the best films of 2015 by organically communicating the involved bonds of sisterhood through both warm and agonizing moments within emotionally and physically enclosed spaces, while simultaneously generating an affecting response against tradition and customs that the adults – in that particular house – bought into long ago.
Image credits: Ad Vitam, Cohen Media Group; Trailer credits: Movieclips Films Festivals & Indie Films