By Barbara VanDenburgh | Gannett News Service
It’s an age-old tale, that of princesses locked in high towers. Set in a village in northern Turkey, “Mustang” puts its cultural stamp on a story gripping in its ageless universality and gutting in its modern urgency.
Five lissome sisters exult in their rare freedom on the last day of school, tangling limbs with a group of boys in the jewel-blue waters of a nearby beach. Their play is innocent, their gambols unaware of the new breasts to which their soaked school shirts cling.
Less innocent are adult minds. The orphaned girls, raised by their grandmother, come home to frightful admonishments. A neighbor woman has ratted them out, misinterpreting their games for sex. The grandmother is shamed, the girls’ dictatorial uncle furious, and that afternoon of fun proves to be their last.
After the girls get passing grades on their “virginity reports,” the crackdown is sudden and severe. Gone are communication devices with the outside world; cellphones and computers are confiscated and locked up. Form-fitting jeans and T-shirts are replaced with shapeless, dun-colored dresses. The house becomes a wife factory. When school starts back up, the girls remain inside, learning to cook and keep house for the husbands their grandmother is hustling to procure before the girls get a chance to sully themselves and ruin their future prospects.
It’s a grim situation, but there’s hope in the youngest sister, Lale (Gunes Sensoy), whose innocent perspective is the locus of the film. She pounds the loudest against the bars of her sudden prison, and her spirit cannot be muted by a locked door or an ugly dress.
Director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s first feature outing, a best foreign language film Oscar nominee, is heavily reminiscent of another filmmaker’s debut: Sofia Coppola’s “The Virgin Suicides” (1999). It’s good company to be in; both films share haunting reveries of gauzy girlhood, a poetry of blossoming bodies and fleeting infatuations. The cultural specificity and fiercely patriarchal setting sets “Mustang” apart.It’s a timely reminder that, even still, there are few safe havens in the world for a free spirit.
Cohen Media Group presents a film written and directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven. In Turkish with English subtitles. Running time: 94 minutes. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre and Landmark Renaissance in Highland Park.