Quickening

Sheila (Arooj Azeem) is a performing arts major at university, and is finding her dance class to be a particular challenge. She won’t admit this to her (over)protective mother, Aliya (Bushra Ashir Azeem), who thinks the North American university “lifestyle” will ruin Sheila’s chances for a reputable life, compromise her Pakistani values, and basically give her the opportunity to be negatively influenced by her peers, none of whom pass Aliya’s muster. The tension between mother and daughter is somewhat soothed by Sheila’s first love. But when her juggling act between parents, school, and boyfriend ultimately fails, Sheila’s breakdown is of a peculiar sort.

Pseudocyesis: a psychosomatic state that occurs without conception and is marked by some of the physical symptoms and changes in hormonal balance of pregnancy.

Sheila believes she is pregnant. She’s not, but she’s convinced she is, and she’s certainly going to stress out like she is. How will this affect parents, school, and boyfriend? Yeah, that’s exactly what Sheila’s worried about! Poor dear.

Azeem is quite lovely as Sheila, and this coming of age story is particularly complex. Sure you might feel lulled into a sense of security by the admirable cinematography, and the gently hypnotic score, eliciting a dream-like state much like the haze of first love. But make no mistake: inside, Sheila is roiling with conflict and self-doubt. The cultural expectation of pleasing one’s parents runs deep, but Sheila also years no break free and pursue her own ambitions, even if they’re outside the traditional life her parents have envisioned for her. Azeem is able to live in the skin of a second generation immigrant, with all the pressures and expectations bottling up inside, overwhelming her in part because she can’t really express them.

Writer-director Haya Waseem makes a bold choice assembling Azeem’s real-life family to play her on-screen one, but the risk pays off with an authentic-feeling bond that transcends culture. Quickening is a wonderful film about a universal stage in a young woman’s life, layered with cultural specificity for a cathartic journey about growing up, leaving home, and always being there for family.

Quickening is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

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