QUICKENING (TIFF 2021) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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In Quickening, Shelia Chaudhary (Arooj Azeem) is a young woman at a crossroads. A 19-year-old performing arts student at university, she is passionate about her studies and finds herself immersed in a world at school seemingly a million miles away from that of her opulent family home where she lives with her traditional Pakistani family in suburban Ontario. Darting between college parties with her friends and Pakistani community gatherings with her parents, the identity tug-of-war the young woman finds herself in escalates rapidly when, after a sexual encounter with a young man in her class that she has had a crush on, Sheila learns she is pregnant. Heartbroken already that her lover saw it only as a casual fling, she grows increasingly tortured as the life of success her family proudly brandish to their peers also begins unravelling.

A sensitive, focused portrait of a young woman caught between two cultures, Haya Waseem’s debut feature reflects her own status as a Pakistani-Canadian, now living in New York City and brought up in Switzerland. Through Sheila’s focus on performance studies, Waseem from the outset of the film forces us to become attuned to Sheila’s physical presence, her body, and as that body goes through the transformation – myriad transformations, in fact – that lie at the heart of the film, we never lose that sense of embodied experience. This is especially the case when the confused Sheila is unable to process the connection between herself and the changes happening to her own body, and the two cultures she finds herself caught between.

Quickening is as much Arooj Azeem’s film in many ways as it is Waseem’s, her nuanced, insightful performance gathering her a place in the Toronto International Film Festival’s Rising Stars Talent Incubator, where the film has recently made its world premiere. Starring her real-life parents Ashir Azeen (an acclaimed Pakistani actor and filmmaker in his own right) and his wife Bushra as Sheila’s parents Azeem and Aliya, the authenticity of the increasingly intense familial relationships are certainly serviced by this off-camera connection, but at the same time these are undeniably all strong performers regardless, very much in their own right.

Performance lies at the heart of Quickening in many ways made explicit by the field of Sheila’s academic pursuits, but mirrored in the way she is forced in different circumstances to adopt a persona suitable to the occasion – western college girl, or traditional Pakistani one. In the middle is Sheila herself, and despite the film’s forgivable deux ex machina ending, it does not undo the journey that the young woman goes on, and that Waseem shares with us throughout the film. Always in center frame is Arooj Azeem herself, who alongside Waseem, can only go on to bigger things based on this film alone.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).