Still from “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022)
This article contains spoilers for “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (2022).
Content warning: mentions of homophobia, depression, and suicide
“Everything Everywhere All at Once” is a love letter to the Asian American immigrant community and a startlingly sincere portrayal of modern queerness. In an era of formulaic superhero films and live-action Disney remakes, it is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that art can be transformative.
The film’s protagonist, Evelyn Quan Wang, played by Michelle Yeoh, is a middle-aged, Chinese immigrant woman running a failing laundromat with her husband. Her biggest concern is filing her taxes until a multiversal agent informs her that she alone can defeat a great evil threatening the multiverse. Unfortunately, she discovers this evil is her daughter, Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu.
Joy has been driven to apathy and chaos by the multiverse’s endless possibilities. Every choice a person makes creates a new universe until the multiverse holds infinite variations of a person and their life. She experiences every multiversal version of herself at once, so despite her immense power, she feels that her actions are meaningless and inconsequential. Sickened by existence’s anarchy, she creates a black hole bagel to destroy herself and begins scouring the multiverse for her mother.
While the plot sounds absurd, the movie spotlights love’s necessity in a cold, pointless universe and avoids compartmentalizing people or their experiences. It balances mental health, queerness, intergenerational trauma, and the Asian American experience with a delicate, knowing artistry.
For example, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” does not shy away from a realistic dynamic between a queer daughter and her immigrant mother. Too often, queer stories don’t address the complex intersection of queerness and non-whiteness. This film imbues Joy and her mother’s shared dynamic, personal beliefs, and communication patterns with their Asian American identities.
Interestingly enough, Evelyn is not blatantly homophobic. She tells Joy she should be grateful she’s open to Joy dating girls, but she still introduces Joy’s girlfriend, Becky, played by Tallie Medel, as a “good friend” to Evelyn’s father.
A yawning chasm separates Evelyn and Joy. Evelyn consistently fails to hear Joy’s frustrations. Their first interaction in the movie ends with Evelyn berating Joy for her eating habits instead of affirming her feelings. In response, Joy’s face crumples, and she drives away in tears.
This cycle of miscommunication persists throughout the film. At one point, Evelyn begins telling Joy, “I know you have these feelings, feelings that make you so sad, that make you just want to give up. It’s not your fault.” At first, Evelyn sounds like she’s validating Joy’s depression. Joy struggles with a depression analogized by the overwhelming multiverse and caused by the pressures of career, family, and heteronormativity. As her mother speaks, Joy’s confusion and hesitance fall away to expose tentative hope. Maybe, this time, her mother has truly heard her.
But Evelyn’s speech concludes with her blaming Jobu Tupaki, the multiversal evil, for Joy’s depression and queerness. Joy shuts down again. Evelyn can’t see that Jobu Tupaki and Joy are one and the same.
Eventually, Evelyn becomes like Joy to defeat Jobu Tupaki. She, too, experiences every universe simultaneously until nothing seems to matter. Evelyn is forced to face her successful alternate universe selves and, consequently, her own looming failures. Regretful and unfulfilled, she realizes she has accomplished nothing she wanted to in her life.
The film’s climax reveals Evelyn’s father as the root of her insecurities. Her father has never given her the love she needed. In a flashback where she is a newborn baby, her father hovers above her while the doctor says, “I’m sorry. It’s a girl.” This statement encapsulates their fraught relationship; Evelyn has never measured up to her father’s expectations.
When Evelyn gains perspective through the multiverse, she confronts her father. In a heart-wrenching acknowledgment of intergenerational trauma, Evelyn declares she won’t abandon Joy like her father abandoned her; she no longer needs him to be proud of her because she is finally proud of herself. She pulls Joy beside her and confesses she feared Joy would grow up to be just like her: “stubborn, aimless, a mess.” And Joy did. Joy is just like her.
“It’s okay that she’s a mess because just like me, the universe gave her someone kind, patient, and forgiving to make up for all that she lacks.” Evelyn looks at her husband while Joy looks at her girlfriend Becky.
Then, Evelyn introduces Becky as Joy’s girlfriend to her father. She sees that she’s been hurting Joy by trying to protect her from her grandfather’s disapproval. Closeting Joy against her will was never Evelyn’s choice to make.
Notably, Evelyn’s homophobia doesn’t stem from some deep-rooted desire to maintain normative power structures. Rather, Joy’s queerness terrifies her because it feels like another way Joy has failed and, by extension, another way she has failed. Evelyn has to love herself, regardless of her father’s approval, before she can respect Joy’s choices instead of scouring them for shortcomings. She has to value her own relationship with her husband and recognize how he uplifts her before acknowledging how Becky does the same for Joy.
Even when Evelyn accepts Joy and Becky’s relationship, it doesn’t mend their mother-daughter relationship. Joy doesn’t instantly absolve Evelyn of years of miscommunication and harm. She still seeks death via bagel, begging her mother to let her go.
So Evelyn lets go.
But the story doesn’t end there. Evelyn stops Joy. Alarmingly, Evelyn asks her, “And of all the places I could be, why would I want to be here with you? Yes, you’re right. It doesn’t make sense.” Wounded but determined, Joy urges her to keep going; perhaps, she’s motivated by her self-destructive tendencies or a hope that if her mother disavows her she can stop chasing her compassion.
But again, Evelyn surprises us. She pushes the concept of a nonsensical universe from apathy to love. She posits that for some inexplicable reason, despite all the chaos, Joy still went looking for her, and for the same inexplicable reason, Evelyn will always, always choose to be here with Joy.
Coming from Evelyn, this is so much more than any “I love you.” The film’s dialogue is never empty fluff but expresses hard-won sentiments the characters have wrestled with and quite literally bled over. When Evelyn and Joy hug, the scene is preceded by a visual of worlds colliding, and their reconciliation feels appropriately cosmic in scale and repercussions.
Many queer Asian people will understand this scene’s significance. Open emotional communication is something we don’t often get with our parents, and to have an Asian mother approach her queer daughter with a willingness to admit to both past harm and present love is cathartic in ways that are difficult to succinctly express.
The film never suggests we owe our families forgiveness or that because we are family, we’ll always fix things. Instead, it depicts family’s inescapability. It claims we can’t help but desire our family’s love and approval even when we spend years missing each other by leagues. If we seek to bridge those gaps, it will take mutual vulnerability, effort, and time.
At its close, the movie doesn’t tie things off neatly. Steps have been taken toward healing, but it won’t be instantaneous. Evelyn still has taxes to file. She still chides to show she cares. But she rekindles her love for her husband. She accepts Becky as Joy’s partner. She goes with her husband, father, and daughter to the IRS offices, knowing that they’re all at last speaking the same language.
Ultimately, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” argues that in a nonsensical universe, we can and must seek love. Love is what grounds us; it creates meaning. The movie encapsulates a truthful queer Asian American experience and delivers a beautifully layered resolution that does not cede realism to achieve its optimistic ending. Through it, its audience finds hope, healing, and a model for reconciliation.
Author: Rainer Lee (He/Him)
Copy Editors: Bellze (They/Xey), Bella (She/They)