Looking for common ground: “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once” represents a possibility of understanding in tense parental relationships



Stephanie Hsu (left), Michelle Yeoh (middle) and Ke Huy Quan (right) star within “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which was released on March 30.

A24’s newest film, “Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” stars Michelle Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu, showcasing a tense mother-daughter relationship between the two characters under a sci-fi lens.

Though this movie is emotional for anyone, especially those with a tense relationship with their own mother, it felt particularly poignant for Asian American families.

In the opening scenes, Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu) is trying to talk to her mother about inviting her girlfriend to the family party that evening. Her mother, Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh), was distracted about preparing for her tax meeting and getting ready for the party. Yes, she could have just been distracted by trying to get everything done, but those of us who have had this exact type of conversation with our own mothers know better. She was avoiding Joy and using her own stress and tasks as a way of diverting the conversation.

Evelyn won’t hear her daughter’s pleas to just stop and talk to her, and even goes so far as to redirect the blame, saying that she’s not the one changing the subject, but her daughter is.

As Joy prepares to leave, Evelyn stops her and for a second — it looks like she’s going to apologize for her actions. Instead, she asks if she gained weight, and Joy angrily gets into her car and drives away.

Though the two actors share the spotlight throughout the film, rotating between dealing with their own grief, disappointments and trauma, I found myself utterly drawn to Yeoh’s character. I felt as though I was seeing my own mother through Yeoh’s depiction of the character, and I felt her stress, sadness and existential dread through it all.

Though this first scene felt like a play-by-play of so many conversations I’ve had before, I was drawn in by the quiet moments and the emotion displayed so expertly by Yeoh, as it showed the type of transparency that I either never really saw or ignored in my own mother.

As Evelyn’s life is turned upside down, she becomes pulled into her alternate lives in other universes. It’s true that anyone could watch this and understand the fascination of what their life could have been if they had simply made other choices. But, as a daughter of a Filipino immigrant, I found myself thinking not of my own choices, but the choices my mother made throughout her life and how it got her to where we are today.

In one life, Evelyn was an expert martial artist and movie star. In another, a chef. And the one at the center of the conflict, she was a scientist that drove her daughter to the brink by forcing her to universe jump until it destroyed her. In each alternate life, she carried a level of obsession and disbelief at the choices she made and the life she ended up with, ultimately leading to her complete dissociation from her current life.

When I watched Evelyn come to terms with each of her lives, I thought about similar choices my mother made and I realized I had thought about this before. If we followed the rest of our family to New York after they decided to immigrate to America, if she had taken the job in Los Angeles after her company closed during the 2008 recession, if she had been less practical in her own life. I felt a level of kinship with Yeoh’s character and even felt a pang of guilt for not recognizing that similar lost feeling that my mother might have experienced.

Emily St. James, in an article by Vox, coined the phenomena shown in this movie the “millennial parent apology fantasy.”

In a heart-wrenching conclusion, Evelyn apologizes to Joy, now filled with a greater understanding of her daughter’s pain and her own faults in their relationship. Joy asks her, if she could have any life, why would she choose to be in this one with her? Evelyn responds that she will cherish her, even in the small specks of time that they have together.

The movie represents an attempt to heal intergenerational trauma through an apology that promises to do better than they had before. Evelyn realizes she experienced similar traumas with her own father and recognizes how that translated into her relationship with her daughter. By living her countless lives, Evelyn reaches a level of understanding with her daughter that she was otherwise blind to.

This doesn’t just rest on the parent, however. The child in this fantasy trope also realizes that their parents went through the same trauma with their own parents that has more or less paralleled their current relationship. There’s a push and pull with this fantasy dynamic, as it creates the perfect circumstances to reach a level of understanding and, then, a promise to do better.

It could be just a fantasy to reach this level of understanding, but stories such as this film that articulate this apology arc do teach a lesson in trying to understand the other person. Through listening and an attempt at empathy, that apology and promise can be reached.

“Everything, Everywhere, All at Once,” in my opinion, was an ingenious way of articulating healing from intergenerational trauma and how parental relationships can improve as a result. It’s no wonder this film has become a tear-jerker for all viewers, as it promises the fantasy of understanding and improvement in tense familial relationships.