When the trailer first interrupt my regularly scheduled streaming, my finger automatically moved toward the ‘skip’ button when I stopped. The familiar face of Michelle Yeoh being dragged backward through space and time held me transfixed, and by the time the googly eyes rained down from the sky I knew I needed to see it.
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once is a ‘big hearted sci-fi action adventure’ according to its production company A24’s website. But in truth it is so profoundly much more.
The film itself is divided into three parts: ‘Everything’, ‘Everywhere’, and - spoiler alert - ‘All At Once.’ It is shot in the style and pacing of an Independent Film^™ and somehow even when things start getting a little random, a little wild, that something-other-than-commercial indie vibe carries a throughline making the experience both jarring and harmonious all in one.
We start in the midst of what an outsider can easily see is a family’s breaking point. Our protagonist, Evelyn Wang, is fixed on keeping everything together with the zero-tolerance intensity that many of us children of Asian mothers will instantly recognize. Her good-humored and worn-down husband, Waymond, is desperately trying to communicate with her. And her daughter, Joy, is fighting a losing battle to be heard, acknowledged, and accepted.
What first drew me in was the primarily Asian main cast telling a story that, despite the heavy Asian-American cultural influence, is universally enjoyable and relevant. Yes, there are martial arts - Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Kwan are undeniable badasses - but it didn’t feel like the sort of film I’ve typically seen that are representative of Hollywood Asian stories. (You know the ones: they showcase an element of stereotypical kung fu, nerdy, hacker that is pivotal to who the characters are as people).
The next thing that caught my attention was the sci-fi element. I love a good multiverse film, and, in the two minutes it took for me to get completely hooked, the film came across as approaching Everett’s theory in a really unique way.
*For a little science bomb, Hugh Everett (the third) was the physicist who, in the late 1950’s, first developed what would become multiverse theory. (...and, yes, I absolutely had to Google that).
When EEAAO officially opened in theatres a week later, I was right there front and center ready for a big hearted sci-fi action adventure. What I was not ready for was how intensely personal the film would be for me.
*Note: from this point on there will be some spoilers!*
It’s no secret that a major crux of the film is the Wang family’s inner workings; the trailer even hints at the prevalent mother-daughter thread that is woven through the story. However, as I walked out into the eye-shattering brilliance of daylight, saying I felt seen would have been an understatement (my husband even quietly asking if I was okay).
While on the surface it’s a creative and meticulously crafted next level journey through a fantastical tale, EEAAO is also an on point parable of mental health struggles and relationships. Particularly the incredibly difficult ones between mothers and daughters. Particularly particularly the incredibly difficult and cross-culturally challenging ones between Asian mothers and Asian-American daughters.
From the moment we see Evelyn and Joy’s relationship unfold, we immediately get how fraught the tension is between them. Joy wants her girlfriend to know the nuances of her girlfriend attending the party Evelyn is planning. Will she be welcome? Will she be acknowledged? Evelyn - in the way that many of us Asian daughters have experienced - not only refuses to answer the question but refuses to even acknowledge it, as if ignoring it will make her discomfort with her daughter’s sexually be equally invisible.
Once at the party, Joy begins to introduce her partner to her grandfather, Evelyn’s father. While struggling to find the Chinese world for ‘girlfriend’, Evelyn jumps in and clarifies that the two are just ‘friends.’ In refusing to acknowledge the relationship, she in effect refuses to acknowledge the parts of her daughter she doesn’t understand or agree with.
We see this presented again when Evelyn is talking to Joy, explaining Jobu Tupaki - the films primary antagonist aka the dimensionally unattached and inexplicably powerful presentation of Joy. She again and again refers to Jobu Tupaki as the reason Joy is feeling what she’s feeling and doing what she’s doing. Evelyn seems relieved that the things she doesn’t want to see can be othered from the daughter she’s comfortable with, and in doing so further alienates Joy.
We eventually learn from Jobu Tupaki that despite everyone’s belief, she has not been trying to find this specific Evelyn to kill her. Her goal has actually been to bring her mother to a place of understanding - seeing everything she sees, experiencing everything she experiences, as if that is the only way Evelyn will understand what Jobu is going through. She wants to be understood. Accepted. She wants to have a closeness with her mother that she doesn’t think is possible without Evelyn fully experiencing everything all at once in the same way Jobu Tupaki does. And in many ways she’s right.
And in this, we enter a dimension of profound and deep parallel to mental health struggles that impact life, perception, experience, relationships, and the will to live.
Throughout the story we gradually find out that Jobu Tupaki has been developing a sort of interdimensional black hole that has the ability to destroy the entirety of the multiverse. When the two finally have a literal sit down, Jobu brings Evelyn to what's reminiscent of a white temple filled with her followers.
As Evelyn is ushered to a looming curtain, Jobu explains that she hasn’t been trying to destroy the multiverses. The curtain is drawn and we see the fruits - or rather carbs - of her labor. She has, in fact, been creating a literally-everything bagel. Evelyn stares into the abyss of the swirling inkiness of the bagel while Jobu lists all of which the bagel contains: sesame seeds, poppy seeds, the past, the future, every possibility, and so on.
While EEAAO consistently has an unparalleled ability to bring poignancy to the absurd, Jobu says something that immediately settled into my core like a bag of googly-eyed rocks. She says she has spent her life seeing and feeling everything - every possibility, every moment - in an instant. She created the bagel with the goal of disappearing and finally feeling nothing.
I’m someone who’s done the lifelong dance with clinical depression, anxiety, dissociation, and PTSD. I have a history of self-harm and suicidal ideation that has been made somewhat more manageable through meds and an intensive therapy schedule.
That said, it is still a struggle. Good days are often at a functional baseline while bad days- well, if I had to describe it I’d say it’s like feeling everything ever at once. All possibilities of what may happen in areas I feel insecure: all regrets from the smallest awkward moment to the deep self-resentment of toxic behavior. So many emotions and potentials swirl around whichever-me-is-most-present like a tornado of voices and sensations that are unable to listen to reason and refuse to be quieted. It is completely overwhelming to the point of unbearable. To the point of longing for quiet- for nothing.
In that moment I related to Jobu. I felt seen by Jobu, but also the writers, creators, actors, and even best boy grip. Even more profound, everyone who had or would see the film. EEAAO, for me, was the moment Evelynn’s eyes were opened and she knew what Jobu was going through.
It is practically impossible to explain the experience of mental health challenges to those who have never experienced it. It’s why so many times people will offer nuggets of advice that can come across unhelpful and painful: “Just snap out of it,” “Other people have it harder,” or “Think about all of the good things in your life.”
These are things that may work for them. However, someone in the midst of chaos can’t just flip a thought switch to suddenly be “okay.” Beyond that, many times an individual may already feel guilty at being unable to change their state of mind despite a great deal of struggling. Adding more guilt by offering advice that suggests they “should” be able to change their state of being only adds to the mental cycle.
Film, tv shows, stories, and games have the uncanny ability to truly allow us to broaden our perspectives. To see and understand experiences outside of our own. It’s one of the reasons representing diversity is so important, and in this case - even though the film is not overtly about mental health - it felt so close and personal. It serves as a metaphor that I can turn to later to explain the experience I might be having. “Remember this moment in the film? It’s like that.”
In the reverse, I felt I was able to glean a little perspective on my own mom. Evelynn begins to engage with her own past: how her parents cut her off when she chose to marry Waymond and her tendency to try out a lot of things in an effort to find herself. She realizes that she is beginning to interact with her own daughter in a similar way and addresses the deeply held sorrow that those she cared about most were willing to abandon her.
Mother-daughter relationships are complicated. Across the board, I don’t think I know one daughter who hasn’t had a variation of complexity arise in their connection.
When it comes to mother-daughter relationships between Asian mothers and Asian American daughters, the challenges rise to new heights. Now you’re not only dealing with generational differences, you’re dealing with cultural ones.
It might be easy to think that cultural differences would be simply shoes off in the house and different foods at meals. However it is so much more profound than that. Our culture and experience colors everything that we do and observe. The line that separates care and nurture from invasive and aggressive falls in two completely different places.
For example, when I visited Korea this past time a large portion of the family went out to eat. At the restaurant, my cousins (who are comparable age to me though a bit younger) throughout the entire meal were hovering over the table moving things from one end to another, retrieving refills, cutting and serving food - for all intents and purposes acting as personal servers.
I’ve never, not once, done that. At least not to that extreme. Even my attempts and being a good table host - which in my western context I do think is completely acceptable - fell woefully short of what I observed. I’d never seen anything like it, nor would I have even understood the expectation without seeing it play out before me.
My mom likely, despite having spent more time stateside now than in Korea, was influenced by that being how she grew up. She never expected me to be a standing server at dinner, but this type of generational show of respect manifested in other ways that I’d felt blindsided by.
Years of this communication and expectation gap - plus in my circumstance early traumatic events - led to a lifetime of this push-pull conflict with my mom. I’ve always thought she was the most fascinating, beautiful, talented, and coolest woman around. I also had so much confusion, anger, resentment, and sorrow toward her.
They say as you get older you’re able to realize your parents are just people as imperfect as anyone else. And that’s fine and well and even true to a point, but it doesn’t address or bring peace to the emotional baggage that we may carry around.
This deep desire to connect that drive Joy and Jobu throughout the entire film - I felt that. I feel that. The feeling of conflict and wanting to be seen. It has my name written all over it.
But seeing so much from Evelynn’s perspective, just personally, was helpful in letting me experience what she did for a little while. It let me see from her point of view without my own past baggage blocking my sight.
Like plain-world Evelynn shared past experiences that seemed to be repeating with Joy, my mother also struggles with her mental health in very similar ways. So I do come by it honestly.
Mental health care and awareness in the Asian community is woefully lacking. It tends to go unrecognized, undiscussed, and swept under the rug. In 2022 the percentage of therapists who are Asian is around 10% - much higher than it’s been in the past, but along with other minorities in that health care space woefully underrepresented.
My own therapist is white, which I don’t feel hinders our ability to work together. However, there is value in having a therapist who knows the Asian American experience firsthand and who can speak with an understanding to a non-western perspective and cultural history. Plus, there may be some who simply feel more comfortable talking to someone who they relate to and identify with.
I very much hope that Everything Everywhere All At Once can, even in some small way, open the door for understanding when it comes to mental health as well as the complicated relationship that marks these mother and daughter connections. It provides an amazing insight that if you’ve experienced it you’ll recognize it but if not it won’t make you enjoy the film any less.
Either way, across the board it is a phenomenal visual and storytelling ride that I was able to watch completely immersed and - despite the closeness to some very vulnerable parts of my life - really love while feeling emotionally safe.
Whether you are someone who deals with your own mental health challenges, are an Asian daughter with an Asian mother, know anyone in either camp, or just enjoy a solid film crafted in an incredibly unique and fantastical way, Everything Everywhere All At Once is a perfect choice. And who knows, you may end up seeing things from a different perspective than you expected.