There us a great deal to admire around the largely French-made Turkish-language film Mustang. It scores two major coups even before you start watching it: it's a study of adolescent female psychology and sexuality in a cloistered Turkish family, which is rare enough; and it was directed and co-written by a Turkish woman, Deniz Gamze Ergüven, which is rare too. It is an altogether politically brave work. But it's really not that compelling of a movie. It's a rock-solid debut, but it's also a very debuty debut, the kind that you get when a filmmaker has many thoughts and much to say, and is terrified as all hell that we might not follow all of her thinking if she doesn't endlessly belabor it.

The film's subjects are five sisters, from oldest to youngest: Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu), and Lale (Güneş Şensoy). With their parents dead, they live under the dictatorial care of their uncle (Ayberk Pekcan) and grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), the unsmiling embodiment of all that is conservative and traditional - that is to say, repressive towards any expression of anything but utter docility on the part of the girls - in Turkish culture. Sick of his charges' recent willfulness, the uncle has decided to marry them all off as quickly as possible, which triggers a wave of resistance, as his nieces fight back in many small ways; Sonay is able to strong-arm him into letting her marry a young man of her own choosing, Ece finds a more drastic way of thwarting her uncles' ugly will, and Lale stages an outright revolution in the confines of the home where they all uncomfortably co-exist.

The setting and themes are Turkish, but the style is purebred European realism, to inconsistent effect. Like a lot of realist films from that continent, Mustang boasts a cast made up largely of non-professionals. As tends to happen in such scenarios, the actors get better as they get younger: Şensoy is the unabashed stand-out, as a fiery little modernist surrounded by arbitrary conventions who knows that she needs to keep her opinions to herself at the risk of her own well-being, but hasn't quite mastered the skill to avoid letting her anger express itself all over her face. Most of the performances surrounding her aren't nearly as organic, though the four actors playing the older sisters all have at least one big moment where they feel completely natural and in the skin of their characters.

Still, it's clear right from the start that this is The Lale Show, and Mustang suffers from the meandering it takes until the narrative catches up with that reality. Ergüven and co-writer Alice Winocour take great pains to make the film a compendium of all the various ways that being an adolescent woman in Turkey can be awful, and while admiring the intellectual nobility of that goal, it leaves large portions of the film, particularly in its middle third, feeling too much like it's covering bullet points rather than crisply moving through a story. Some of the individual sequences are bracing - a protracted sequence involving Selma's ritualistic social and medical humiliation around the act of losing her virginity is a horrifically potent snatch of down-with-patriarchy storytelling - but they invariably feel written, in a way that's never to the film's benefit.

That being said, Ergüven is on much surer footing when choosing where to set her camera and how to maneuver the performers in front of it; Mustang derives a great deal of effect from the sense of claustrophobic sameness in how the walls and rooms of the house are built into great slabs cutting off the back of the Z-axis. It's enough to argue that Ergüven has a great film in her future even if this distinctly over-heralded feature isn't quite there yet. There's nothing surprising in the film's aesthetic, but it's executed with admirable skill and vitality.