A young woman is caught between the expectations of her Pakistani family and her growing independence in writer/director Haya Waseem’s haunting coming-of-age drama, Quickening.

When Sheila (Arooj Azeem) loses her virginity to a boy at college, she keeps it a secret from her parents and most of her friends.  But after the relationship ends in heartbreak, Sheila’s life and mind begin to unravel as she struggles to find her place in her family, culture, and school.  Waseem’s feature directorial debut is a dreamy and surreal exploration of a young woman’s search for love and acceptance in a family where everyone keeps their struggles to themselves.

Azeem’s performance is nuanced and compelling.  She brings life and depth to Sheila, even in her moments of silence and solitude.  It is difficult to believe that this is her first leading role, and something tells me she may be a performer to keep an eye on. 

Even from the film’s first moments, there is a deep sadness and isolation to Quickening.  The camera is intimate, each shot almost oppressively close.  Yet so much of what we see is incomplete or fragmented.  For example, Sheila is introduced with half her face concealed in shadow.  In her dance class at university, the dancers are more abstract shapes than people.  Humans reduced to tangles of limbs and rhythmic footfalls. 

Important moments are similarly obscured, the deliberate camera work emphasizing the distance between characters.  A fight between Sheila and her mother is not shown completely.  Instead, the viewer only sees mother and daughter through a slight gap in Sheila’s bedroom door.  Later in the film, when Sheila is throwing up in a public restroom, the camera peers at her indirectly from under the stall dividers.  There is almost a voyeurism to these moments.  A sense of observing, from the outside, a moment that is meant to be private and unseen. 

College is often presented as a time of joyous independence but growing up can be a harrowing and lonely experience.  In many ways, Quickening is as much about mental health as it is about dysfunctional family dynamics.  Azeem’s performance is raw and vulnerable.  Though Sheila is in college, she is young and under immense pressure.  As someone who has spent the better part of the last decade working with college-age students, I appreciated that Sheila felt like, well, a teenager.  Her idealism is real and relatable, as are her fears and mistakes.

Though the cinematography is gorgeous, a sense of dread pervades Quickening.  For a film that moves so slowly, there is enough tension to keep the viewer’s attention from wandering.  And, while the ending didn’t exactly come as a surprise, it wasn’t exactly predicable either.  Waseem manages to skirt the edges of conventional storytelling tropes, offering a coming-of-age journey that is both satisfying and fresh.


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