For many American moviegoers, walking into a foreign film can seem daunting, as there’s a common conception that films from other countries are depressing or dour. This is not entirely off base, as many high profile films from foreign coasts seem to be about subjects such as war, genocide, or some political or social wrong. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven breaks this conception with her latest, the Oscar-nominated Mustang, by bringing heart and warmth to the story of six sisters pushing hard against the outdated social mores of male-dominated Turkey. Despite the darkness at the core of her film, as it revolves around the controversial subject of child marriage, Ergüven never loses sight of the one thing that holds the movie together: sisterhood.
As the film opens, we’re introduced to our heroines, a sextet of effervescent young women, full of vigor and life. Having lost their parents, these sisters nonetheless are living their lives the best they know how, until, after an incident at the beach, they are housebound by their extended family. Despite their incarceration, little dampens their flame, until the family starts marrying off the sisters, even though they’ve barely made it through puberty. As more of the sisters get married off, things become more dire, and these girls begin taking more drastic measures to make sure they can live the lives they deserve.
When you have a cast of so many young women, it can be a difficult task for filmmakers to make them feel different enough, especially when they’re playing sisters. However, one could never confuse these sisters, as each have their own personality, their own desires, and needs. Their reactions to their premature nuptials throughout the film say much about their character. Some take it in stride, some take it badly, and some take drastic measures to make sure it doesn’t happen: all are different, all are intriguing, and all feel feel honest to the character.
Though each sister is an individual, the highlights of the film are when these sisters come together. The camera comes alive when these actresses share the scene, filling each frame with laughter, frivolity, and sisterly pranks. These scenes stand in stark relief against the darker portions of the film, as the fates of each sister makes the situation more dire. The actresses play off each other with refreshing authenticity, teasing and playing with each other like real sisters, rarely if ever coming as stagey or stilted. That most of these actresses are in their teens, or younger, makes the performances even more remarkable, as it’s such a rare accomplishment for such young women to perform with such verisimilitude.
Mustang is many things. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a harrowing account of child marriage, and at one point it’s even a home invasion story, but, above all, it’s story about family, and how it shapes us. A film full of warmth and dread in equal measure, Mustang serves as a reminder of the power of siblinghood in the face of adversity.
Ryan E. Johnson (@atxtheaterguy) is a theatre and film critic from Austin, TX. He enjoys the films of Sion Sono, Wong Kar-Wai, Ingmar Bergman and loves experiencing films told from bold, new perspectives.