Deniz Gamze Erguven
Stars: Gunes Sensoy , Elit Iscan
Rating: PG-13
4 (out of 5) Globes

“Mustang” is a feminist drama about women’s right’s issues in Turkey, where patriarchal dominance still looms large despite the nation’s occasional flirtation with being part of the progressive West. But it’s no message movie. Message movies put their ideals in speeches, text globs and sometimes end credits URLs. “Mustang” defines itself solely through action. Our heroes — five teenage girls put under house arrest, “Virgin Suicides”-style, by their conservative uncle and grandmother for very tepidly cavorting with boys — are always on the move, even when stuck in rooms. So is director Deniz Gamze Erguven’s camera, which can’t be locked down on a tripod and is always roaming about. It finds freedom where it can.

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The compulsion to break barriers extends to the tone. “Mustang” is serious and, at times, tragic, but it’s also light, funny even when things are bad. There’s something absurd about the central premise, partly because the evil uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and grandmother (Nihal G. Koldas), made their guardians after their parents’ deaths, are patently ridiculous, overreacting to nothing much at all. They can barely even maintain power. Though they succeed in forcing their young charges to dress in “shapeless, s—t-colored dresses,” the girls regularly escape, even hitching a ride with local hippies to a football match. Their elders could be underestimated if they didn’t still manage to arrange-marry a few of them off, one actually out of true love, the others to the usual types who would never attract a life partner without the law behind them.

Our central quintet tend to move as a pack, and the one-by-one marrying off is tantamount to chopping off a hydra head then burning the stump so that nothing grows back. Eventually the youngest, Lale (Gunes Sensoy), emerges as a de facto leader — the only one who really lashes out at her oppressors, whose tantrums range from spitting in their coffee mugs to a climactic act that calls to mind “Over the Edge.” Like that teen angst classic, “Mustang” manages to be both stirring and weirdly fun, righteous and light (or light-ish), though it’s far sneakier when things, once or twice, get truly heavy. One mid-film tragedy is all the more gutting because it didn’t seem “Mustang” was that serious, and ditto the way it ends. A salvo about traditions that need to die out would be important, but “Mustang” transcends nobility. It embodies the very freedom it preaches rather than just preach it.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge