TIFF 2021 | Quickening (Haya Waseem, Canada)

By Katherine Connell

Writer-director Haya Waseem’s formally striking first feature is a melodrama executed with considerable restraint. After an opening title defines the term “pseudocyesis”—a form of psychosomatic but hormonally convincing pregnancy—we are taken to a dance studio, where bodies writhe on the floor and smash into walls. In front of the class, Pakistani Canadian college student Sheila (Arooj Azeem) paces back and forth while making aggressive zipping sounds with her hands—an apparently withholding performance that receives a harsh critique from her instructor (“You can’t get away with absence”). 

Snapshot scenes bind together the film’s character study of a highly guarded individual who barely sheds her layers even as familial and interpersonal tensions come to a boil. Waseem unfolds her narrative with aching slowness, but the director’s considerable experience as an editor ensures that the film is never dull, even when some scenes threaten to drag. The sparse dialogue keeps us at perpetual arm’s length from Sheila throughout, even as Azeem’s performance suggests her tempestuous interiority. 

The result is a tense, unsettling atmosphere as the film explores themes of bifurcated cultural identity, social alienation, and formative sexual experience. Topsy-turvy cinematography from Christopher Lew relentlessly forces us into a voyeuristic perspective: scenes begin from cracks in doors; close-ups are shot over the shoulders of other characters; and obscuring objects are placed directly in front of the lens. Waseem’s commitment to distancing her audience risks disconnecting us entirely, but the ambiguity here provides a refreshing antidote to the saccharine wisdom of most coming-of-age stories.