A highway can be a dead-end street. Witness Zehra (Neslihan Atagül), a Turkish teenager who works double shifts at a truck stop and comes home to a fiercely protective mom who tries to keep her on a tight leash. Adolescent co-worker Olgun (Baris Hacihan) makes clumsy romantic overtures, but his greatest ambition, to be selected to appear on a TV game show, makes him a less-than-impressive suitor. Zehra’s eye falls on a rugged long-hauler twice her age—and through a lovely match cut from her rubbing her sore neck in the kitchen to him doing the same on the road, director Yesim Ustaoglu suggests that their union is almost fated.
The word “Araf” refers to the “limbo” between heaven and hell, and Zehra, seeking a life “somewhere in between,” ends up plummeting from one to the other. Ustaoglu isn’t alone among Turkish filmmakers in examining the plight of young women constrained by hidebound social mores, for whom desire and passion are closely shadowed by shame and anguish. But the director of 2008’s Pandora’s Box, about two adults wrangling over their Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, is unusually sensitive to the offhand details of daily drudgery and wrenching experiences.
Olgun’s futile efforts to escape his own equally bleak circumstances have a harsh conclusion. But Zehra’s story comes across less as a sweeping condemnation of a society than as a specific character study, echoed in a brief, sobering scene in which Zehra’s older divorced best friend and mentor recounts her own mournful tale. For Ustaoglu’s young leads at least, there’s more to come: each, after portraying a lifetime’s worth of grief, turned 20 last year.
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