Mustang’s premise makes it easy to call this a Turkish Virgin Suicides.
No matter how formulaic, coming-of-age movies can be endearing even if it’s the same scenario you’ve seen unfold on screen again and again. With every year and every hormone-fueled teen picture bringing a new crop of young adult stars and 20-somethings playing high schoolers—and with the latest wave of pop hits on the soundtrack—such movies are an ever familiar exercise in the age-old theme of young people finding their voice. But what if they’re trying to find their voice in an oppressive society? In Mustang, Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven tells the story of five orphaned sisters whose only coming-of-age option seems to be an arranged marriage.
We meet the girls on their way home from school, dressed in crisp navy blue and white uniforms and playing with boys at the beach. A few boys are carrying the older girls on their shoulders, and everybody gets soaking wet, but the image is virginal, almost baptismal. While Western eyes see this as innocent fun, the conservative village elders of Northern Turkey, where the film is set, see this as a scandal. Oppressed eyes with a dirty mind interpret this playful water idyll as a decadent public display of young girls rubbing their private parts on the boys’ necks. The girls live with their grandparents, and this shocking behavior leads their “Uncle” Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) to place increasing restrictions on their behavior, eventually turning their house into a veritable prison.
Despite the unfamiliar culture, the film follows its own kind of formula—one you might recognize. Its premise makes it easy to call this a Turkish Virgin Suicides, and while Ergüven is familiar with Sofia Coppola’s feature debut, her tone isn’t nearly so dreamlike. Still, there’s a bit of a fairy tale element, as when the girls sneak out to attend a football match. This leads to a scene that Ergüven effectively shot without a camera. She wanted to make use of the fact that, in response to sports riots, men are banned from some football games in Turkey. The trouble is that these games are announced only so far in advance, and she wouldn’t be able to send her own crew to the game. But she arranged for the girls to attend one of these games, and the cameras shooting the game caught the young actresses on film. If this seems like a kind of guerrilla-filmmaking stunt, it’s one that resonates with a film that observes the very different ways that the movie’s adults view the girls.
The sisters make up a tight-knit unit, but one by one they are soon forced into arranged marriages. Their individual personalities are for the most part undeveloped, with the exception of Lale, (Günes Sensoy), the youngest and most rebellious. Sensoy, whose point of view frames the film, is at once the most vividly drawn character and its strongest performer, her defiance a strong defense for her vulnerability. Ergüven, who’s making her debut feature, has explained the incident at the beach that opens the film comes from her own life—except that she didn’t speak up to defend herself. The heroines and villains of Mustang are occasionally black and white, but it’s an assured directorial debut that uses its autobiographical elements not to engage in navel-gazing, but to train that gaze on a repressive society.