Anyone who goes to the movies regularly has seen a female coming-of-age pic at one time or another. It usually involves high school, bitchy behavior among purported friends, and awkward attempts at sex — in Hollywood, adolescence is routinely played for laughs. But how many of us have looked at a Turkish female coming-of-age movie? Filmmaker Deniz Gamze Ergüven has made one, and it’s an eye-opener.
Ergüven’s debut feature Mustang introduces us to five orphaned teenage sisters — all of them beautiful, all intensely curious about life, and all squirming under the thumb of their conservative, religious-minded, extended family in a small seaside community in contemporary Turkey. The youngest sibling, Lale (played by Günes Sensoy), already has a definite rebellious streak, but when all five of them are summarily locked up inside their uncle’s home for the crime of swimming at the beach with some boys, their unified resistance startles the family. None of the girls really wants to be part of a “bride factory,” herded into an arranged marriage. The confiscation of all “corrupting influences” — TV, computers, phones, makeup, etc. — is the last straw. Forget Little Women, this has more in common with The Great Escape.
Actress-turned-writer-director Ergüven, a graduate of the French national film school La Fémis, sets up the potentially tragic social drama as a comparatively light-hearted commentary on the inadvisability of forcing women — even provincial ones from traditional Muslim backgrounds — into rigidly defined roles against their will. Once we get to know Nur, Ece, Selma, Sonay, and feisty little Lale, it’s obvious that no one is going to make them do anything they don’t want to. Lale gets a friendly truck driver to teach her how to drive. One grabs a secret quickie in the back seat while the adults are in town. Another one sneaks out and has sex “the back way” with her boyfriend, so as still to “technically” remain a virgin (Dan Savage could get a month’s worth of advice columns off this group). And so on.
Where a typical H’wood teenage flick takes a generalist approach to its subject, Ergüven’s film glories in its specifics. The poor worried, grouchy old folks try in vain to control human nature while the girls giggle and hatch their plot. The old world is rapidly changing. Girls just want to have fun. Hooray for Mustang.