“At least something will happen”
While intriguing for France to select a film in Arabic as their sole Foreign Language Oscar hopeful, you cannot deny Mustang‘s quality. Academy rules center around financial stake rather than mother tongue, the stipulation being that dialogue only needs a non-English majority. A tale of five sisters conservatively raised in a small northern Turkish village definitely fits that bill as religion and culture gradually imprisons them onto a path none have willfully chosen. For an American to witness their struggle after a seemingly harmless romp at the beach derails everything is impossible to fathom. But this is life within a nation separated between two continents and social progress—one where freedom lies a thousand miles away in Istanbul with no means to reach it.
Raised by their grandmother for the past decade after their parents passed away, life for Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu), Ece (Elit Iscan), Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), and Lale (Günes Sensoy) had been normal. They ventured to school, made friends, and had fun until the latter exited their neighbors’ realm of decency. A game of “chicken fight” irrevocably changes their lives: the girls sitting on the guys’ shoulders ensuring their chastity was “compromised”. Grandma (Nihal G. Koldas) must be firm in her discipline because the village is talking, but she knows what it’s like to be a young woman in a patriarchal society. While she knows nothing impure occurred, the benefit of the doubt is thrown out the window once Uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) gets involved.
Blame lands on Grandma for failing to raise responsible women ready and able to become wives. So summer vacation gets cancelled and a crash course in homemaking commences. The doors are locked, visitation privileges revoked, and the quintet finds itself stuck in shapeless, bland dresses far too soon. Uncle Erol’s oppression drives the wedge between modern love and the thought of arranged marriage deeper until their acts of rebellion grow. With each transgression come more gates, more window bars, and more desire for escape—the psychological and emotional prison trapping the girls in the Dark Ages manifesting itself as a physical impediment to individuality. One by one wedding rings are exchanged, education forgotten, and the status of Erol’s family name purified until the strain becomes too much to bear.
First-time feature film director Deniz Gamze Ergüven and co-writer Alice Winocour don’t stop with a cultural divide, however. They also inject the most grotesque form of hypocrisy this situation can hold, one with unforgivably tragic results. Their script includes a slew of such contrasts from the sanctity of virginity and the myriad ways around it; the idea that “sullied” women are unfit for matrimony despite a doctor comfortable assuming every newly-wed wife without blood on her sheets was in need of a professional lie; and the rampant escalation of flirtation under the noses of the false devout chalking it up to the price of living in the twenty-first century. God-forbid if anything goes awry after two sets of guardians agree in a union for their children, though. That’s too far.
Told from the youngest sibling’s point-of-view in order to showcase how universal their oppression is no matter age down the line from Sonay to Nur, Mustang toes the line of entertainingly resonate coming-of-age tale and dramatically important exposé on life behind closed doors of a ritualistic tradition stripping away the rights of children. For every comically wonderful instance of Grandma or Aunt Emine (Aynur Komecoglu) covering up the girls’ missteps is one of Erol’s violent temper or the community’s side-eyed glares. These five effervescent young women exist in a fishbowl and survival means falling in line or building towards a jailbreak. One is lucky in love and another in marriage’s protection, but the others find themselves without options and nowhere to go but their home’s ever expanding Hell.
We’ve seen this story before—I found a lot of similarities to Sofia Coppola‘s The Virgin Suicides—but it remains relevant because of the international setting and authentic representation of what we cannot fully comprehend living in the western world. These girls are familiar whether mirroring family members or friends, each independent and smart enough to push the boundaries of decency and adventure to be what they want to be removed from their guardians’ responsibility. Watching from Lale’s vantage turns marriage from a joyous occasion to a death sentence as each promise of matrimony leaves her one-step closer to isolation. And if the older girls show resentment, why wouldn’t hers grow into rage? This is the future awaiting her and no one is making it seem the least bit pleasant.
Sensoy is fantastic as our guide, out-spoken and fiery as only someone her age can be with manufactured love too many years away. She’s not yet resigned like her siblings, seeking every avenue to have fun whether sneaking out to a soccer match or silently protecting the others engaging in carnal pleasures out of sight. Her Lale is also proactive enough to know this depiction of marriage is too cruel to endure without a fight, so she befriends local delivery boy Yasin (Burak Yigit) as a safety net. It’s a mutually beneficial platonic relationship that looks as natural as possible to us in America despite its secretive nature and extreme risk of retribution there. But his possessing the keys to freedom—knowing how to drive—is worth it.
The rest of the cast is just as good in depicting their specific characteristics. Koldas’ grandmother always kind-hearted and compassionately loyal, even when angry; Pekcan’s Erol’s violent temper stewing beneath his benevolent scenes to ensure we aren’t surprised once it’s unleashed; Akdogan’s Sonay expertly promiscuous to stay a step ahead of anyone questioning her virtue; and Sunguroglu’s Selma appropriately done with the whole situation, her dejected frustration in being judged and called a liar proving how demeaning and cruel this process can be. It’s Iscan’s Ece who stuck with me most, though. She’s the most complex of the bunch being stuck in the middle of elder acceptance and younger rebellion, her fate a cautionary tale able to make even the strongest proponents of what’s happening rethink their motives.
 Tugba Sunguroglu, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Ilayda Akdogan, and Gunes Sensoy in MUSTANG. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
 Ilayda Akdogan and Tugba Sunguroglu with Elit Iscan facing away from camera, Gunes Sensoy laying across, Doga Zeynep Doguslu shoulder in lower left corner. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group.
 Clockwise starting with actress in red sash: Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, and Gunes Sensoy in MUSTANG. Photo courtesy of Cohen Media Group