Saturday, February 6, 2016

Movie Review: "Mustang" (2015)

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This is the reason that I love the Academy Awards. Incredible foreign language films are introduced to the American public at large, many we would never have seen otherwise, and for those of us lucky enough to be in the Los Angeles area during awards season, a bevy of theatrical screenings pop up all around. And as I tackle my Oscar movie checklist this year, I jumped at the chance to see France's 2015 submission for Foreign Language Film (though it is, in fact, spoken in Turkish). In this Oscar-nominated first feature by Turkish-born, French-bred female director, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, Mustang explores the dangers of growing up a modern young woman in a conservative culture, the natural and unnatural of sexual awakening, and the unbreakable bonds of sisterhood.

At the end of their school year, five sisters ranging in age from twelve to seventeen, return home to the strict household of their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş) and uncle, Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). The girls, having lost their parents a decade before, lean on each other as they come into their own as young women, fighting misconceptions that they've behaved immorally with local boys when town gossip spreads in their small town. Lale (Güneş Şensoy), the baby and tomboy of the girls—and our protagonist—watches their home become a prison when they're denied the right to leave, and witnesses her sisters rebel in various ways. The eldest, Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), finds ways to sneak out and meet her boyfriend in the dark of night, while the nervous Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu) and quiet Ece (Elit İşcan) each endure the prospect of rushed arranged marriages. As the threat of "wife training," unwanted sexual encounters, and a future of marital imprisonment looms near for all of them, Lale seeks a means of escape to the distant city of Istanbul, where she and sister, Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), might find freedom—and happiness.

The following comparison is unavoidable. Reminiscent at its core to Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, based on Jeffrey Eugenides' gripping novel, the dynamics of sisterly love isn't only explored, it's the entire foundation of the film. Yet while the five sisters in Eugenides' story are ever-veiled in mystery, their sexuality overt though secret, and their mental prison weighted down by crippling depression, the Mustang sisters have nowhere to hide. Draped in dour sack dresses to hide their shapely bodies and flower-patterned underwear, their kinship bands them together and keeps their hearts warm and smiles wide. That is, as long as they have each other. Within the confines of their home enclosure, their differences in age, personality, and experience disappear, and they become a unit of strength. It's beautiful to see, and that much more devastating when the unit is torn apart.

Ergüven incorporates more than any movie's fair share of unsettling imagery, though it is almost entirely implied. Religion and politics never come into play here, though you know they're not far away. The rural, coastal setting, the preoccupation with chastity and virginity, the importance of wedding dowries and reputation... none of it is just for the sake of drama. There is something disturbingly personal at work here, and it works its way under your skin slowly, without notice. It's impossible not to anticipate the possibility of some of the more disturbing events that occur, but the dispassionate way in which abuse, depression, fear, and anger are introduced show not only the deftness of the writing, but the depth of the characters—and that of the young actresses portraying them.

Şensoy's Lale may be a child, but she's absolutely unwilling to compromise her future for anyone. She flits about happily enough, her youth saving her from the adults' scrutiny, and the threat to her childhood and immediate future is distant, if there's even a threat at all. But with bravery and clarity, she watches, and we watch through her eyes. Some of it she doesn't understand, but we do. And we're just as helpless as she is to do anything about it. What a magnificent and unsettling sensation as a viewer. To experience Lale's early envy of her sister's more mature bodies, their femininity, right alongside her, and then to see her realize it's the lack of those things that's kept her from meeting their same fate. Taking action comes slowly, but when it does, there's no one better suited to do it.

That's not to say it's all so dire. At the film's start, the mood is playful and filled with laughter. While the wrath of their conservative family stirs and hisses, it doesn't feel all that dangerous—at first. In fact, even as the bars go up on the windows and the locks on the gates, it's boredom that strikes the girls first. Rolling about giggling together on the floor or sunbathing behind the property's high walls staves off the very real fact that things may not get any better. But for now, things are still alright and the future is bright. Sneaking out is just a game, after all, no one is getting hurt. It's a slow build to the ominous change that forces each of them to come face to face with a life they may not want. By the movie's end, the emotional climax isn't only compelling, it's thrilling.

What a spectacular debut from Ergüven. By respecting her performers and the subject, the film never becomes exploitative or vulgar, and it instead resonates with honest humor and sadness. Pretty much the polar opposite of a film like Fat Girl, which uses similar themes but ignores its characters and reality for the sake of shock and awe. The entire cast of Mustang works together to tell a delicate, small story with big emotions and a lot of guttural impact. Şensoy and her cinema sisters, with their long brunette locks and wide-eyed beauty, each create distinct personalities, some given more screen time than others, but they are a team. An effective one at that. One of my favorites of last year, and had I seen it earlier, it may have found a spot on my Top 10 ranking.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars

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