It begins and ends with a young Turkish girl hugging her teacher. But, between that arc of affection that sets “Mustang” galloping through your heart lies a rugged road paved with tragedy and oppression. How this little girl not only survives it, but attacks it with all her wiles, is the reason Deniz Gamze Erguven’s stunning directorial debut is one of the most inspiring displays of girl power you’ll ever see. 

It’s set on Turkey’s northern coast, but the language “Mustang” speaks is universal in its damnation of religions and societies that treat women like chattel. And if you haven’t noticed, it’s happening the world over, from genital mutilations in Africa, to the execution of adulteresses in Afghanistan, to wives forced to endure bad marriages in nations where courts, under no circumstances, grant divorces. 

Erguven, for one, has had enough, and with co-writer Alice Winocour she’s cleverly shrunk the injustices down to the microcosm of a splintered family living along the scenic Black Sea. The shore is beautiful, almost as pretty as the five orphaned sisters, almost all teenagers, who’ve grown thick as thieves since their parents were killed a decade earlier. Now living with their old-school grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas) and tyrannical uncle (Ayberk Pekcan), the girls don’t respond well to discipline. They’re free thinkers in a close-minded town, where an innocent fully clothed game of chicken with the local boys turns into an inquisition. 

“You were seen rubbing your parts on boys’ necks,” their infuriated granny scolds. And punishment is doled out forthwith, as the girls are pulled from school and enrolled in a crash course of sewing, cooking and cleaning in preparation for being married off one by one to the stranger with the best dowry. In essence, they become prisoners in their own home, a metaphor that gradually becomes a reality, as bars and gates start to appear on all the doors and windows, and phones and computers and makeup are swiftly confiscated. 

An early scene in which the sisters are seen stealing apples from a lush garden is a bit on the nose, but that’s the only misstep Erguven takes in laying out a devastating story of spirits crushed by archaic values, such as not being allowed to drive, go to a soccer game or experiencing a wedding night without unfurling the (hopefully) bloody sheet for parents to inspect. 

If it was Erguven’s intent to anger as much as educate, she fully succeeds. Her film rips you to bits. But it also makes you laugh, as well as think. And, a good reason for that is her terrific ensemble of actors led by 12-year-old Gunes Sensoy, who is wise beyond her years as Lale, the youngest – and most independent – sister. It’s through her appalled eyes that we see how the backward ways of her strict Uncle Erol are steadily tearing her family apart. How she responds is what grips you most. 

She’s the mustang of the title, the wild animal who refuses to be tamed. And her response plays like a classic prison break, a sort of “Stalag 17.” But, it’s more like an adolescent “Shawshank Redemption,” given how the sisters fight to keep their minds unencumbered by the chains. And as the tension and fallout build, you’re sucked in deeper and deeper into the lives of girls who know no bond stronger than sisterhood. It’s very moving. It’s also hugely rewarding. 

But the smartest move Erguven makes is in not turning the film’s sexist males into villains. As repressive as Uncle Erol is, there’s never any doubt his motivations are out of a twisted kind of love and affection. He’s just human. No more, nor no less than Lale’s guardian angel, a young ragamuffin trucker named Yasin (the scene-stealing Burak Yigit), who provides the film’s glimmer of hope that the next generation of Turkish males will see women as equals. He’s a keeper, and so is Erguven’s mind-blowing film. It will truly set you free. 

Movie review

MUSTANG

(PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content and a rude gesture.)

Cast includes Gunes Sensoy, Ayberk Pekcan, Burak Yigit and Bahar Kerimoglu. In Turkish with English subtitles.

Grade: A