It’s the last day of the school year in a small town in northern Turkey, and five close-knit young sisters, along with other schoolmates, are celebrating by splashing around in the Black Sea. It’s all innocent fun. But even though this is a contemporary story, it’s set in tradition-bound Turkey, where old-fashioned customs rule. When a nosy neighbor sees this frolicking and notices that boys are involved, she makes a beeline to the girls’ home to report their supposed indecent behavior. There are no parents for her to snitch to. The girls are orphaned and live with their ultra-conservative grandmother and an angry uncle with misogynistic tendencies.

The girls are just being girls, but in the eyes of the adults, they are being promiscuous and that just won’t do. Their solution is to keep them away from the rest of the world, to bring in people to administer home schooling – the most “important” things to be learned are the wifely duties of cooking, cleaning and sewing – until it’s time to arrange a marriage for each of them, then send them packing.

The girls are initially beaten by their grandmother (one at a time, from oldest to youngest, apparently another tradition), and yelled at – nasty expletives included – by their uncle. Then, things start to become extreme.  The uncle begins to turn their home into a makeshift prison, even installing bars on the windows.

It would be easy to call this an off-putting coming-of-age story. But, there are too many complications to describe it that simply. First of all, there are five girls coming of age at once. The script presents them a something close to a single unit. Sure, they’re all different people, but they often act as one. And while punishment lurks all around them, they still, for the most part, put up with the awful treatment and even manage to laugh together when they’re left alone.

The story is told through the eyes of the youngest sister Lale (Gunes Sensoy), who desperately wants to grow up quickly but doesn’t yet have a grasp of what’s going on around her. She’s not really sure what it means when the group of five girls starts getting winnowed down as the arranged marriage business commences. Lale can only watch as families with eligible boys are brought over to meet with the girls’ family. Neither the boy nor the girl has any say in this. It’s just an accepted way of life.

This is how you grow up. This is what you do. This is who you marry.

The film has serious themes running though it, ranging from a strong suggestion of sexual abuse to a dose of heavy tragedy. But first-time writer-director Deniz Gamze Erguven, who was born and raised in Turkey, but now lives in France and is the youngest sibling in her family, lets pieces of lightness shine through. One wonderful sequence has all of the sisters sneaking out of the house and journeying from their small town to the big city to attend a soccer match. When a TV camera catches them in the crowd, a well-meaning aunt runs outside to cut the electricity so the uncle won’t see them there.

There’s also the title of the film. Mustangs are wild horses that run free. The girls, all with long hair – or manes – dream of being free or at least getting away from their stifling home life. And, marriage is certainly not the answer for all of them.

By the film’s final act, there’s an uprising of sorts, instituted by the two youngest sisters, the only ones remaining at home. Those bars on the windows are nicely worked into the plot, and the actual ending, though carrying some uncertainty, can be taken as happy. The most amazing thing is that four of the five girls had never acted before, and every performance is a winning one.

Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.

MUSTANG

Written by Deniz Gamze Erguven and Alice Winocour; directed by Deniz Gamze Erguven

With Günes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan

Rated PG-13