“I wasn’t looking for you so I could kill you. I was just looking for someone who could see what I see, feel what I feel.” – Jobu Tupaki
This review comes after months of endless discourse and awards buzz. Everything Everywhere All at Once quickly became the awards darling of this year’s award season. It also became the source of a bad faith critique that dismissed its optimistic core message as “too idealist” and simplistic in nature. In a sense, the film is target for those still resentful over Sian Heder’s CODA, a story about a family overcoming hardship, taking home the Best Picture Academy Award.
Despite its 11 Oscar nominations, EEAAO hit a nerve, to say the least. Whether or not that’s particularly good in the landscape of media consumption, time will only tell. But that’s not my concern with this review. All the other pieces and much-too-long Twitter threads can speak for this film’s cultural posturing in the long run.
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – or “The Daniels” – EEAAO is much more than a message of kindness and love. At its true center lies the complex nature of mother and daughter relationships strained by time and displacement – of cultural barriers erected amid survival. Michelle Yeoh’s Evelyn Wang, matriarch and the gravitational pull of her family, tries to make ends meet in a country that still feels as foreign to her as the day she arrived from China with her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan). (I know this story almost too well.)
EEAAO’s universal appeal may seem like the trickery of emotional manipulation (as if anything we watch isn’t already laced with subjectivity). While some critics have brought up sincere and valid points of contention, such as the film’s representation of the Asian community and its use of the LGBTQ+ as the basis for several jokes, I find myself drawn to its honest portrayal of the immigrant family’s eternal struggle. The United States has long shrouded much of its complex, unstable history in the fantasy of the immigrant dream. The same appeal to this fallacy triggered my move from Venezuela to the United States. But they don’t tell you that you never stop trying to survive, even if the slightly less-dry grass is a sickly off-yellow on the other side.
Evelyn’s never-ending pile of tax receipts and loads of laundry become significant markers of this American myth. For an immigrant, life is a never-ending pile of receipts and government-oriented forms that never get any smaller as the years pass. EEAAO made me realize just how much my parents sacrificed so my siblings and I could have some semblance of a future, even if the future here is also starting to cloud over. Evelyn and Waymond gave life to a story I’ve only ever seen in one place before: Lee Isaac Chung’s 2020 film Minari. Chung’s film confronts us with the sense that immigrants arrive either via broken-down train tracks or beneath the heavy floorboards of container trucks. While those are two ways, they’re certainly not part of the story of the majority. And sole the tragedy isn’t dying before arriving. It’s the slow, debilitating loss of your culture and relationships.
The beautiful, intricate edits of Evelyn’s multiple lives cross the screen in colorful succession, but nothing kept me spellbound more than Evelyn’s relationship with her daughter, Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu). As Evelyn and Joy verse jump and in assorted costumes and return to our Earth with more genre-bending backgrounds, their volatile relationship keeps me in place. Mother and daughter are tethered by their love for one another – a love that’s long been buried beneath the scars and frayed ligaments of their lives, layer upon layer of misunderstandings and gaps unbridged. It’s a common cross-cultural divide many immigrant mothers and daughters undergo amid displacement. It’s also a stark reminder of how parents sacrifice a meaningful relationship in their struggle to give us a “better” life.
Evelyn and Joy stand at odds with one another not because they hate each other, but because they’ve been walking away from each other. One is no longer able to hear the other across the long bridge of their experiences. Tension and constant misunderstanding (and a lack of desire to understand) obscure their love for each other. Eventually, the two are isolated by years of suppressed emotion. Joy’s frustration with her mother translates into self-sabotage across every multiverse and manifests as a need to assert her dominance over Evelyn with alter egos. It’s this displacement of the self that pushes Joy to almost give herself over to a world of self-hatred and destruction.
This is the dynamic that rises above the rest of the film. Above even the beautiful love story between Evelyn and Waymond, who also lost their way from each other. I am my mother’s daughter, for better and for worse, just as Joy is Evelyn’s. And Joy is a reflection of both her mother’s virtues and her flaws. However, EEAAO doesn’t dwell on the things we can’t change; it reminds us of what we can mend. Nothing is a quick fix – what’s required is understanding how much love we still have for each another, then meeting halfway. Everything Everywhere All At Once is a colorful expression of the sides of trauma that makes us who we are. It’s our souls constantly at war with a world of binaries unwilling to see past the one life we’re given. It’s also hope in the form of many worlds where we can be everything we want.