Girls, both the song and the French-Turkish film Mustang declare, want to have fun. They want to go to dance all night, wear cute clothes, swim, go to soccer games, hook up with boys, and, generally speaking, not have fussy adults always telling them what they can and can’t do. But the five sisters at the heart of Mustang also want to choose who they marry (or if they marry at all). They want to drive, have their own money, go to school, and see the world that lies beyond their remote, oppressive seaside town. They want their lives to be their own, even if it means taking drastic measures to make them so.
Mustang tells a straightforward story of female empowerment, but it’s the way it tells that story that makes it deserving of all the accolades it’s received, including an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film. Though the movie has won (superficial) comparisons to The Virgin Suicides, it has a more distinctly female perspective and is too close to its subjects to feel voyeuristic. The trouble begins in the first 10 minutes of the film, when some nasty gossip and a misunderstanding turns innocent fun into a minor sexual scandal, leading the girls’ relatives to increasingly shut down their access to the outside world. The Turkish-born French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven balances out the film’s creeping claustrophobia with quiet (and not-so-quiet) acts of rebellion, unexpected humor, and warmth, and the result is a tender and fresh coming-of-age film that honors the bonds of womanhood and sisterhood without taking them for granted.
As the girls’ caretakers add to a list of restrictions—no school, boys, digital technology, sports games, revealing clothes—to avoid them being corrupted further, each sister begins to push back in her own way. That might mean slashing a thigh-high slit in a long, shapeless brown dress, or sneaking out with boys, or secretly spitting in the coffee being served to unwelcome guests. The youngest sister, Lale, quickly emerges as the film’s wily hero and audience surrogate—as the specter of arranged marriage quickly closes in on the older girls, Lale’s fight for freedom grows more desperate.
There’s a certain dreaminess to Mustang that helps soften the bleakness of what’s playing out on the screen. Ergüven’s camera gravitates toward the hazy light that streams in through the windows of the girls’ house, even as it quickly becomes more akin to a prison. She revels in the sisters’ beauty, youth, and spirit, focusing in particular on their long, untamed hair (a reference to the the animal in the title), as it catches the wind like a banner raised in defiance.
For these girls, fun isn’t trivial—it’s political. Their elders treat their pettiness, their materialism, their disobedience as signs of disorder that could make them undesirable as wives, and thus as women. But thanks to Ergüven’s deft writing, Mustang doesn’t aim for any kind of moral simplicity, nor does it condemn entire segments of Turkish society (the older generations, men, the uber-conservative). Despite their confined existence, the girls occasionally experience unexpected acts of kindness from those who could otherwise victimize them—a much-welcomed emotional respite for both them and the audience.
The film comes close to being a beautiful but ultimately tragic bit of cinema, until Mustang’s exhilarating final act rescues it from ending on a wholly grim note. Some might see the conclusion as the product of wish-fulfillment. But Ergüven isn’t peddling blind optimism so much as a realism animated by the belief that freedom—far from being inevitable—must be fought for. That it will be fought for.