The five young girls leave their teacher on the last day of school and power down to the beach with a couple of male school chums, splashing and laughing and breaking out in playful piggyback fights in the warm, inviting surf. The scene is the essence of youthful freedom, a vision of unselfconscious happiness. And it is a threat, because this is small-town Turkey, and women do not let their thighs rub against the necks of men in public.
“Mustang,” an excellent first film from French-born writer-director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, would be a grind to watch if not for everything the five sisters embody: outer beauty, inner fire, resistance, stubborn solidarity in the face of a society terrified by their collective life force. “Mustang” is a damning portrait of the lot of women in rural Turkish society, but its outrage and empathy spill over the sides of the movie to embrace the planet as a whole — anywhere a woman is condemned for all the thoughts others have about her.
The film’s told from the perspective of the youngest sister, Lale (Günes Sensoy), who hasn’t quite hit puberty yet and is annoyed about that. She looks at her older siblings and is as awed as we are by the grace with which they seem to step through life. The fearless oldest, Sonay (Ilayda Akdogan), sneaking out to meet her lover (Erol Afsin); the shy Selma (Tugba Sunguroglu); middle sister Ece (Elit Iscan), seething beneath a placid exterior; second youngest Nur (Doga Zeynep Doguslu), happy in the shadow of her nervy kid sister.
The girls are orphans — their parents died in a car crash years earlier — and living under the care of an uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and a grandmother (Nihal Koldas). The latter is indulgent, the former a controlling terror. When a neighbor woman rats the girls out for the frolic on the beach, the uncle imprisons them in the house from that day forward.
“Mustang” thus becomes a study in the secret life of girls and a tutorial in the ways repression breeds rebellion. The sisters are soccer nuts but aren’t allowed to attend stadiums with men; when there’s a women-only game in the city, they make a mass jailbreak that’s played for both suspense and comedy, the grandmothers and aunts monkey-wrenching the men from catching the girls on TV.
Any fumes of humor are burned away when the uncle starts marrying off the sisters one by one. A sense of futility descends upon the movie, and then despair, and then angry resistance. Only the baby of the family, Lale, sees she may have to drive her own life forward.
When “Mustang” isn’t glorying in its central quintet, the governing emotion is a simmering fury. Making her debut with ease and confidence, Ergüven implicitly questions this society’s most fundamental assumptions: that women are responsible for men’s urges, that sex is danger, that control equals protection. As in all repressed societies, youth finds its own end-runs around adult hypocrisies, and here there’s a tryst in the family car that has the youngest sisters and the audience nervously holding their breath.
Ergüven only missteps when she reveals a much darker side to the uncle than is initially apparent. You can see why the director goes there; conservative audiences in Turkey and elsewhere might be inclined to side with the character unless he’s clearly presented as evil. For more broadminded moviegoers, the gambit tips a naturalistic tale toward unnecessary melodrama. It’s a filmmaker’s invention, and it feels like one.
Otherwise, “Mustang” joins last year’s “Girlhood,” about African immigrant teenagers in Paris, as part of a welcome international wave of films made by women directors that focus on girls growing up in worlds of men — and on what they look like when no one’s looking. Maybe some enterprising American filmmaker will be inspired to do the same. What do you think she’ll see?
★ ★ ★½
Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Written by Ergüven and Alice Winocour. Starring Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu. Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan. At Kendall Square. 97 minutes. PG-13 (mature thematic material, sexual content, a rude gesture). In Turkish, with subtitles.
An earlier version mischaracterized rules on women’s attendance at soccer games in Turkey.