TIFF 2015 Review | ‘Mustang’ Isn’t Just Turkey’s ‘Virgin Suicides’ 

No more outside. No more gum. No more school, shorts, or soccer. No more phone or Internet, if they ever had it in the first place on their sallow-yellow antique of a computer. No more make-up. No more postcards. No more childhood. 

Such is the fate five orphaned sisters are handed down by their strict uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) after a nosy neighbor reports the quintet “pleasuring themselves on boys’ necks.” (They were trying to topple over one another while perched on their classmates’ shoulders at the beach after the last day of school. Also, there’s probably an easier way to get off.) In protest, the most spirited of the sisters, littlest Lale (Günes Sensoy), starts to break a chair, explaining she’s sentenced it into becoming firewood for the crime of “touching my arsehole.” But the grown-ups have decided: the girls, aged 12 to 17 or so, will not be allowed to endanger their marriage prospects any further. 

Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s debut Mustang isn’t just Turkey’s answer to The Virgin Suicides, but also a near-flawless portrait of how girls cope with, act out against, and escape from repressive circumstances that threaten to reduce them to solely their gender. The odds aren’t in their favor, but most of them are unafraid to play the difficult hands they’ve been dealt. They’ve got no choice but to fight back.

After the incident at the beach, the girls’ guardians turn their home into a prison: tall walls, bars on the windows, and “shit-colored” uniforms that look especially drab when contrasted with their long, wild manes. Sadly, the penitentiary conditions include the threat of sexual violence: both from the arranged marriages to come, as well as within the home. 

Soon, the “wife factory” that their non-stop sewing, cooking, hostessing house has become yields a double wedding for Sonay (Ilayda Akdoğan), who in the best-case scenario gets to marry her high-school sweetheart, and for Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), who’s indifferently handed off to a stranger. In a violent display of triumph and power, their joyous uncle expresses his patriarchal pride by shooting his revolver into the air above the frightened Selma — who’ll later gulp down every last half-empty glass at her wedding. (Tragically, the Chekov’s gun here proves all too literal.) 

Things turn harrowing soon after the dual matrimonies, as it becomes terrifyingly clear how much more concerned the sisters’ guardians are about the family’s reputation than the girls’ well being. Despite the extreme relevance of the film’s themes, in particular how girls and women are punished for intentionally or inadvertently arousing male desire, Ergüven’s light-as-air touch ensures that Mustang never approaches didacticism or heavy-handedness. 

Faced with the very real possibility of being married off as a preteen, Lale begins to figure out how to make her fantasy of fleeing to Istanbul a reality in a welcome tonal shift from an understated drama to a quiet action thriller that matches any example in the latter genre in its suspense and thrilled delight at the resourceful. 

With Elit Iscan and Doga Zeynep Doguslu rounding out the sororal cast, the film boasts remarkable child actors and an utterly earned resolution that seriously takes into consideration the fact that two little girls from a small village arriving in the big city with no connections or money might well be out of the frying pan and into the fire. Still, when Lale starts to run, there’s nothing to do but cheer her on.

Images via Cohen Media Group

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