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Message in 'Mustang' wrestles with its cultural extremes
Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan and Gnes Sensoy play five orphaned teen sisters who live with their grandmother in the film Mustang. - photo by Josh Terry
"MUSTANG" 2 stars Gnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Deniz Gamze Ergven; rated PG-13 (mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture); Broadway Theatre

On a surface level, Mustang works. Its the story of a young girl who struggles to escape a nightmare of a home life. But Mustang wants to send a message about old world patriarchal cultures, and it stumbles over itself to get there.

Lale (Gnes Sensoy) is a preteen, the youngest of five sisters who live in a small Turkish village under the care of their grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan). Their parents died years ago, and as a result the girls are very close.

One afternoon on the way back from school, the sisters take a detour to a local beach and play some water games with a few of their male classmates. A neighbor catches them, and reports lewd goings-on to Grandmother and Erol. This is the starting point of a head-to-head clash between the girls rebellious behavior and their uncles determination to make them respectable.

Erol immediately withdraws the girls from their school and starts them on an in-house domestic training program. Cooking lessons and shapeless brown dresses replace the elements of their former lives. The girls push back, and their uncle puts bars on the windows. Things escalate until in desperation, Erol sends the two oldest girls off into arranged marriages.

Things get darker from here, and from Lales perspective (she narrates the film), her life begins to feel like the steady constrictions of a python. As circumstances become more extreme, Lale starts hatching a plan for escape, which comically hinges on her learning to put a car in gear in order to drive it.

It's interesting to note how, in spite of the growing darkness, director Deniz Gamze Ergven uses blips of humor throughout the film. Lale's attempts to drive are one example, and in another scene, when the girls sneak into town to attend a football match, their Aunt Emine has to go outside and throw rocks at the power pole in order to keep Uncle Erol from seeing the girls on the game's TV broadcast.

Taken at a symbolic level, Mustang appears to pit the carefree, liberated spirit of the modern world against the oppressive culture and tradition of the old world. Its easy to see how Ergven would prefer to have the audience embrace the youthful enthusiasm of the teenagers and turn in disgust from the backward behavior of the adults.

But Mustang wrestles against its own message. Given the wild behavior of the girls, its hard to blame their guardians for being concerned. The older girls are already sneaking around and having sexual encounters with random boys from the village, and even Lale comes across as a mouthy, disrespectful preteen when provoked.

But the biggest problem comes from the portrayal of Erol, who is ultimately revealed to be more than just an over-protective authority figure. This reveal turns him into an exaggerated nightmare of a bad guy, one that is easy to cheer against but hard to see as representative of the culture Mustang longs to critique.

Religion is never mentioned specifically, aside from a few lingering images of mosques from around the village. So Ergven stops short of pointing the finger square at the Muslim faith. But the circumstances of the story feel like more of a worst-case scenario than a situation that can be universally instructive. They may work great for the story, but they undercut the message.

The treatment of the girls is unfair, oppressive and ultimately monstrous. But by painting the situation in such extremes, the clearest message that Mustang sends is about the true value of good parenting.

"Mustang" is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture; running time: 97 minutes
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