Everything Everywhere All At Once follows a fractured Chinese American family whose trip to the IRS office turns into a multi-verse-hopping free-for-all with the fate of every universe in the balance. Beleaguered and distracted laundromat owner Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh at the height of her powers) and her gentle, neglected husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan in a god-tier return to acting) attend a high-stakes meeting with their IRS agent, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis actually transcending her human form) to discuss their tax liability. Along for the ride is Evelyn’s grumpy father (James Hong) with whom she has a troubled relationship. Notably missing from this group is Evelyn and Waymond’s twenty-something daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who was supposed to come along to help translate.
This is because the Wangs’ tax errand is prefaced by a conflict between Evelyn and Joy, who has brought her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel), home to meet her mother. Joy is hoping her mother will allow her partner of three years to finally meet the Wang’s patriarch. Evelyn avoids the issue, claiming her father is too old, too from a different generation, to handle such news. Evelyn instead introduces Becky as a “good friend”, causing a deeply hurt Joy to drive off, but not before her mother gets in one final dig, telling Joy she’s “getting fat”.
Joy’s sexuality and her weight aren’t the only things thrown in her face as evidence of her being a disappointment. Her Mandarin gets worse every year, she dropped out of college, and she doesn’t visit her parents enough. Evelyn can’t help herself from trying to control her daughter, even though she’s driving Joy away. As we learn more about Evelyn’s past experience of being disowned by her father, we come to understand this behavior is her way of trying to prevent her worst nightmare; Joy’s life from being a “mess” just like hers.
Back at the Wang’s Joy-less tax audit, Evelyn is distracted from the potential seizure of her property by intrusive, sci-fi visions beckoning her into a hero’s journey. In the span of several minutes, an alternate version of Evelyn’s husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) projects his consciousness into Waymond’s body, and informs Evelyn that she’s the chosen one to embark on a wild journey to save the infinite and ever-expanding multiverse.
For the next two hours, for better and worse, the Wangs remain in the IRS building, locked into an increasingly deranged battle for the fate of the multiverse against a space-hopping maniac, a Great Evil One called “Jobu Tupaki” (also Stephanie Hsu) and her loyal cult. The mysterious Jobu has come to the clichéd but-always-appealing nihilist conclusion that “nothing matters”, and possesses some kind of mega-black-hole that has the potential to collapse the multiverse in on itself.
Evelyn learns that it’s possible for people from different universes to connect to alternate versions of themselves. They can both jump their consciousness into other versions of their bodies, or “download” special skills from their other-selves. Evelyn gets a crash course in how to use the technology, which she herself invented (in the “Alpha” universe).
The twist, which is revealed quite early in the film, is that the Great Evil One is in fact, the Alpha universe Joy Wang. Alpha Joy was driven mad after Alpha Evelyn ruthlessly pushed her daughter too far with her verse-jumping training, fracturing Joy’s mind across the entire multiverse. Now, as Alpha Waymond explains, only our Evelyn is capable of stopping Jobu, and returning balance to the world.
Communication. Respect. Generational divides. Traditions. The innumerable immigrant and Chinese American experiences. Community. Love. Regret. Shame. Divorce. Taxes. Hot dogs. All of these pressures bear down on the Wangs in unique ways, often intersecting and combining, leaving characters crushed under their burdens, coping in their own ways, and becoming increasingly estranged from each other and any semblance of happiness.
Another topical element for the Wangs is Joy’s queerness, which is addressed directly, and not just as a throwaway, but as a recurring subject and key throughline. To my memory, the word “lesbian” is not used in the film, but the word “gay” is, and aside from meeting Joy’s girlfriend Becky several times, explicit reference is also made to the fact that Joy “likes girls”. But Joy’s personality isn’t limited to merely being a lesbian, and tension over her sexuality is just one of many sore points between her and her mom and this is just one of the film’s narrative drives.
It’s refreshing to have queer representation that is somehow simultaneously overt, non-objectifying, and mundane. Joy’s dynamic with Evelyn regarding the latter’s thinly-veiled judgment and sense of shame around her daughter’s sexuality is common. It’s a frequent phenomenon for LGBTQ kids and their families, one that is just as likely to manifest as big, dramatic arguments as it is in quiet, chronic tensions.
Co-writer and director of Everything Everywhere All At Once, Daniel Kwan, addressed this recently in an interview with USA Today. He explained how discussions with queer friends with immigrant parents informed the depiction of Joy and Evelyn’s dynamic in the film.
“Each time, it’s almost brushed over or ignored, or the parents are waiting for the ‘phase’ to end,” Kwan explained regarding a person’s coming out. “There’s no big screaming match. They just end up having to come out every couple years, every time they introduce their partner. They have to basically fight for the chance to be seen – it’s like this slow-motion erasure of who they are.”– Daniel Kwan
Oftentimes parents employ a combination of tolerance and denial to avoid truly dealing with their child’s “different” gender identity or sexuality, and certainly to avoid accepting it. Yet tolerance deals its own insidious brand of violence, one that can cause emotional and psychological damage. Joy expresses the pain of the Tolerated towards the end of the film when she tells Evelyn that being around her mother just makes her feel… bad. Because it’s not enough to not reject people, you have to accept them.
Mental health is less explicitly dealt with in the film, but it haunts much of its action. Jobu eventually explains to Evelyn that the black hole they all fear is actually a literal bagel Jobu put “everything” in the universe on. By stepping into the center of the bagel, Jobu hopes she can finally find peace from her tortured, fragmented existence. She tells Evelyn that she didn’t create the bagel to destroy the universe – she created it to destroy herself.
Indeed, there’s an astonishing bleakness in the film’s central conceit that is somewhat cloaked by its zaniness and relentless comedy. Between Jobu hunting Evelyns, and Alpha Waymond and Gong Gong hunting Jobu, the Wangs have been massacring versions of each other nonstop in multiple timelines. That’s like… super dark.
Yet among all the infinite scenarios where the Wangs hurt each other, there has to be at least one – out of a million, a billion – where they stop this behavior, change, and heal together. Everything Everywhere All At Once traces the unique factors that make that outcome, however unthinkable it is to many of the film’s characters, a reality. This is not achieved due to one big martial arts battle or a time machine, but because Evelyn confronts her past trauma, apologizes to her daughter, fully accepts her, and commits to healing her family.
Many of the themes and driving narratives in Everything, Everywhere, All At Once are relevant to our lives. We live at a time in American history when, despite making so much social progress, queer folks still struggle for acceptance and equal treatment, intergenerational tensions permeate nearly every facet of society, and anti-immigrant sentiment runs rampant. The film’s tackling of grief, anger, and hopelessness has evoked a visceral response in audiences (I heard sobbing amongst viewers at each of my four screenings). Balancing its serious side with silliness and sincerity, Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s film also speaks to a communal determination to press forward, even when it seems the whole world is pressing back.
Recent statistics suggest a more promising future for queer young Americans. In a recent poll from The Trevor Project, 72% of respondents claimed they felt confident that they could understand or support a lesbian, gay, or bisexual child. Yet only half replied this way regarding a trans or nonbinary child. So while some things in this regard have changed for the better, we can’t let those perceived-as-promising numbers lead us to complacency.
As is evident in Evelyn and Joy’s relationship, parents don’t often realize how deep their desire to control all aspects of their children’s lives is, for both good and bad reasons. Adults’ tendencies to control LGBTQ kids in particular – such as forbidding a coming out, not acknowledging dating partners, and even conversion therapy (see Boy Erased and Cured) – may be created in part due to their experiences and traumas growing up, decades of social conditioning surrounding sex and gender roles, and a lifetime of normalized homophobia. Indeed, some parents still believe that their child being lesbian, gay, or trans is a worst-case scenario. The end of the world. And so for many LGBTQ people, coming out can feel like they’re blowing up their universe. Everything. Everywhere. All at once.
Referencing the ongoing and high-stakes anti-LGBTQ legislation and ideology in the US, Stephanie Hsu, who plays Joy Wang, remarked to them’s James Factora, “I feel like a lot of people are going to feel very seen and safe to be themselves and love who they love inside a movie theater, and simultaneously there may be people in their state who are trying to take that away from them, which is freaking crazy.”
Evelyn and Joy share a scene that addresses this enduring and absurd reality on the nose in Everything, Everywhere, All At Once. When Evelyn learns that the multiverse-jumping supervillain who’s been hunting her down is an alternate version of her own daughter, she interprets Jobu as the literal manifestation of everything that’s wrong with her daughter. A kind of demonic possession.
“You!” She exclaims in horror as Jobu approaches her, “you’re the reason my daughter doesn’t call anymore, why she dropped out of college and gets tattoos. Why she thinks she is gay.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jobu replies, incredulously. “You’re still hung up on the fact that I like girls in this world? The universe is so much bigger than you realize.”