The crime of summer horseplay is enough to imprison the five Turkish sisters at the heart of Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s captivating but tepid “Mustang,” France’s current Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film In a small, provincial village where women sheath themselves head-to-toe in colorless drapery and keep a watchful gaze on the behavior of neighborhood girls, the orphaned sisters (ranging roughly in age from eleven to seventeen) are at once raucous, flirtatious, and innocent. Following a harmless interaction with male friends at a beach, their devout tyrant uncle moves into their house, enforcing new edicts that keep the girls homebound, wrenched from youth culture, and mandatorily inspected for breaches in their virginity. One by one they’re painfully plucked from the household until the youngest girls must face the cycle of abuse and forced marriage their captor intends for them.
What should be a wallop of a film ends up merely a swat. Despite its themes, do not expect a statement piece; Ergüven eschews denouncing fundamentalism in favor of tiptoeing around the issue of religion, scattering the narrative with only negligible references to the scripture and culture that binds our heroines. In a modern country currently facing the rise of conservatism and terrorism, her voice could be bolder. And while it’s common and often wise to tell a story through the eyes of the youngest participant (which can allow for powerful narrational dichotomies), the choice here to focus the point of view from the perspective of little Lale (Güneş Şensoy) unfortunately diminishes the impact of the film’s most shocking, nauseating, and stomach-clenching scenes. Instead, see this film not for its darkest explorations, but the quiet, bright and amusing moments where the sisterly bond between girls (and the breathtaking, naturalistic bonhomie of the five talented leads) shine through the tragedy of their circumstances.