This stunning debut from first time director Deniz Gamze Ergüven tells the story of five orphaned sisters who are being raised by their uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and grandmother (Nihal Koldas) in a beautiful but remote and highly conservative region of northern Turkey bordering the Black Sea. The film opens with a blissful, sunlit sequence of the girls and a few of their male classmates splashing into the sea after school one afternoon. With their glossy, untamed manes, feral grins and boisterous chatter ten year-old Lale (Güneş Şensoy) and her older sisters Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), and Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan) do somewhat resemble a herd of wild horses as they wrestle the boys and play childish games in the waves.
The girls arrive home from their afternoon at the beach in a flurry of giggles and youthful exuberance that is quickly extinguished by their waiting grandmother. She has heard all about her granddaughters “disgusting” and “obscene” behaviour with the boys. Lale and her sisters sob and protest that they were simply playing a game as they are beaten by their grandmother and called whores for “rubbing their parts on the boys” by their uncle. The older sisters are dragged to the local doctor and subjected to an invasive exam to verify their virginity before all five of the girls are pulled out of school, confined to the house and forced to spend their days doing housework and learning how to cook for their future husbands.
Drawing strength from one another, the girls manage to survive this attempt to stifle their spirits and shame them into submissiveness. After their uncle refuses to take football loving Lale to a nearby match she and her older sisters sneak out of the house and hitchhike to the stadium. Unfortunately the ecstatic joy Lale and her sisters share while cheering their favourite team soon gives way to despair when their grandmother decides it’s time for them to be married. Eldest sister Sonay at least ends up with her high school sweetheart, but fifteen year-old Selma is forced to marry a virtual stranger. Fiercely loyal and always courageous Lale suggests that she and Selma steal a car and escape to Istanbul, but Selma responds with heartbreaking resignation that Istanbul is a thousand kilometres away, and she doesn’t know how to drive.
At this point it becomes clear that Mustang is a horror movie masquerading as a drama. The audience shares Lale’s terror when a small blue box of homemade sweets arrives for third eldest sister Ece, signalling the start of a new round of marriage negotiations. Grandmother once again goes to the back closet to retrieve a dusty, sad-looking tome titled All About Sex for Ece and reminisces about her own arranged marriage at a similar age. The bleak reality that this woman and the granddaughters she genuinely loves are trapped in a cycle of victimization emerges, she can no more save them from a culture that insists on sexualizing and objectifying young women and girls than she could save herself. She can’t even protect them from their uncle within the home she gradually turns into a prison and, as Lale says, “bride factory”.
The glimpse director Deniz Gamze Ergüven offers into what life is like for many girls in modern provincial Turkey (and in many places around the world) is grim without ever being joyless. The seething anger and anguish Mustang inspires is balanced out by the sense of empowerment one gets from watching the sisters fight back against the forces that seek to oppress them. Most importantly, Ergüven maintains a glimmer of hope that the girls might escape to distant Istanbul, where they will be valued for their strength and talent rather than their virginity or their ability to cook dinner, clean the house and raise children.