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Everything Everywhere All at Once, the new film from Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (known as Daniels), is told in three parts. This review will be presented in three parts as well.
Part 1: Go See It
If you have any interest in this movie, trust my opinion, or trust the buzz, just go see it. Stop reading this and go see it. It’s a film filled with surprises and, as far as I’m concerned, the less you know the better.
This is a movie Autostraddle — and the world at large — is going to be talking about a lot over the next year (and beyond) and I’d rather your introduction to that be the movie itself rather than me.
Part 2: Okay, Fine, A Little Context
I’m a little offended you don’t just trust me but, to be fair, there is still a pandemic and not everybody is able to easily go to the movies.
So, first of all, it’s gay. You wouldn’t know it from the trailers, but it’s super gay. And I’m not just talking about that woozy feeling you get watching Michelle Yeoh fight. This is an explicitly queer story.
Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a woman who believes austerity is strength and strength is required. She runs a laundromat with her goofy husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and they have a doomed meeting with their auditor (Jamie Lee Curtis) on the same day Evelyn’s father (James Hong) arrives from China for their Chinese New Year party. Evelyn and Waymond have a daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), and Evelyn thinks she should get some credit for being okay with Joy having a girlfriend (Tallie Medel) — even if she doesn’t want that girlfriend introduced to her father.
The story goes from a grounded family drama to a wild cinematic experience when Evelyn is confronted by a Waymond from a different universe. Gone is his dopey demeanor, present is a sci-fi action star. Alpha Waymond tells Evelyn that every choice ever made creates a new universe and he is from a universe where they have discovered how to jump between these universes and harness their various skills. He needs this Evelyn’s help to save all these universes from a supervillain named Jobu Tupaki, who is quickly revealed to be Alpha Joy, pushed so hard by Alpha Evelyn that she cracked. She is now everywhere all at once and the possibilities have revealed a pointlessness. If anything is possible, then does anything matter? When darkness and disappointment are an inevitability in all timelines, why care about anything at all?
The conflict between Joy’s (earned) nihilism and Waymond’s (endearing) optimism become the backdrop for Evelyn’s fight to save the multiverse. It remains a family drama but it plays out on an absurd, genre-hopping scale. This is a film as likely to reference Ratatouille as In the Mood for Love, as likely to make you cackle with laughter as it is to make you sob.
Part 3: Hope in a Hopeless World
I’m now going to assume you’ve either seen the film or are one of those wild people who read TV recaps before watching the show. We are not the same species but I love you and accept you.
This is, after all, a film about love and acceptance. Despite its lofty ambitions, this is a work of emotional sincerity — colossal sincerity. And while I love sincerity, for me, it must be grounded in our reality. Empty messages of peace and love can strike me as more violent than violence itself.
The film flirts with that sort of easy messaging. One of Evelyn’s primary journeys is learning to appreciate her husband and his worldview. He begs her to stop the violence and her fight turns into a wacky collection of magical non-violence where people are placated with cute animals — and BDSM.
This scene is exciting and hilarious, but it curdled in my thoughts. In a world where passivity and non-violence are fetishized by those with the most aggression and brutality, how can this be our ultimate conclusion? Waymond’s approach may have value, Evelyn’s negativity may harm her, but how can we ignore the systemic failures that lead to these limited options? How can we ignore the added oppression Evelyn faces as a woman? How can we ignore the challenges both of them face as Chinese American immigrants in a country based in racism and xenophobia?
But as the film continues, as Evelyn’s conflict with her husband is settled and her conflict with Joy remains, the thematic core seems to expand. Evelyn’s arc with Waymond isn’t realizing he’s right, it’s realizing that he’s not wrong, it’s realizing that they balance each other out and maybe can both learn from the other. Joy and Jobu Tupaki don’t shift their worldview to being all puppies and BDSM — they simply resist the urge to give up, they too acknowledge the value in their parents.
The moment where the film deepened for me was when Evelyn, amidst the big battle, introduces Joy’s girlfriend to her dad as Joy’s girlfriend. It’s a grand gesture and in a weaker film it would be met with celebration. Instead Joy, rushes off. She tells Evelyn that it’s too late. One grand gesture is not the same as a lifetime of unconditional love, one new ally is not the same as a world worth fighting for.
And yet, even in the fantastic Alpha universe, Jobu Tupaki searched for Evelyn. Despite all that version’s nihilism, she still wanted her mom. It’s an imperfect desire, for some it will never be fulfilled, but it’s a desire all the same.
As a young queer person, this is a movie about parents. It’s a movie about looking at a hopeless world and resenting the people who brought me into it. It’s a movie about learning to love those people for who they are and not who I want them to be, of learning to love the world for what it is and for what I want it to be.
I will never argue for unrestricted non-violence. But I will argue for unrestricted compassion. Ultimately, that’s what the film does as well. We don’t have to agree, we don’t have to excuse the inexcusable, but we can see the humanity in everyone.
We can see the humanity in every version of ourself.