The opening scenes of Mustang, a tender and transfixing film by Turkish director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, depict the feeling of freedom in its purest state. Five sisters ranging in age from about eight to 16 leave school for the last time before summer vacation, romp in the shallow sea with their male classmates, and then wander home through the trees, picking apples as they go. But don’t get too comfortable; their childlike innocence doesn’t last beyond the first reel. Over the long summer that follows, the girls turn into women, and their personal liberties are snatched away by a male-dominated culture.
Raised by their grandmother and uncle after the death of their parents, the girls held onto their childhood by forming a tight-knit group. Whenever possible, Ergüven shoots them all in the same frame to emphasize their unity. But after a local busybody spots them at the beach that day and spreads gossip that they were behaving immorally with boys, their cruel uncle decides it’s time to break up the group and marry them off.
What follows is a tense and emotional social drama, but also a valuable exposé of the realities of arranged marriage. Each girl receives a different, seemingly random fate. Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan) gets to marry her boyfriend, while Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu) is matched up with a quiet, unappealing neighbor. Capturing the absurdity of the arrangement, the latter two are introduced in front of their parents and sit in awkward silence next to each other until Selma’s grandmother remarks, apparently without irony, “The children seem to like each other.”
And yet it’s not just absurd; it’s violently misogynistic. On Selma’s wedding night, her husband suspects she has lied about being a virgin. They take her to a hospital where the doctor determines she was being forthright, but her father-in-law has brought along his pistol just in case. Meanwhile, the midnight trips made by the girls’ uncle into one of the house’s many bedrooms pays off tragically, effectively dramatizing how a culture that requires its women to be silent is also inexorably unequal.
As for the elephant in the room: Turkey is, of course, a Muslim country, but Ergüven wisely keeps religion out of the picture. Mustang is not a polemic, and it masterfully walks a razor-thin tightrope to avoid falling into more divisive subject matter. The filmmakers approach their characters not as political objects but as rare humans grappling with that unique moment when childhood gives way—painfully but sometimes beautifully—to brutal realities.
These women’s performances are miraculous—even more so when you consider that all but one is making her screen debut—but the youngest deserves a special mention. In a year full of standout child performances (Jacob Tremblay in Room, Abraham Attah in Beasts of No Nation), the acting done by Günes Sensoy as Lule, the film’s guileless narrator, might be the best of all. Moving seamlessly between childish glee and painfully earned wisdom, she embodies all of the film’s social complexities in a powerfully natural performance. Like the film’s namesake, she’s built to run free, an unstoppable force powering the year’s first great film.
Mustang opens at Landmark Bethesda Row Cinema on Friday.