Everything Everywhere All at Once is a film that defies tidy categorization. It’s both ostensibly and fundamentally the story of a Chinese family struggling to keep things together, and it adds a hearty helping of what feels like every genre under the sun and moon that nevertheless achieves a bizarre harmonious blend of flavors. There’s a lot worth discussing about EEAO, but where I want to focus is its exploration of a familiar topic: intergenerational trauma. Particularly, I find that centering the story on the mother, Evelyn Wang (played by Michell Yeoh), brings a powerful and challenging perspective to the subject.
When it comes to stories about the Asian diaspora, intergenerational trauma seems to be big on Asian creators’ minds. Turning Red is an animated feature about the pressure a Chinese-Canadian girl feels towards her mother’s expectations. Himawari House is a comic about different Asian women moving to Japan to find themselves. Crazy Rich Asians shows how the decisions of one’s ancestors can ripple forward in time, affecting individual descendants in disparate ways. Messy Roots is about growing up Wuhanese in a predominantly white American environment. These works tend to describe families that come into conflict over the frustrating combination of expressing familial love through familial structure and obligation, but in every case, it’s the sons and daughters who are the main characters.
Michelle Yeoh also plays a mom of one of the main characters in the Crazy Rich Asians movie. There, she’s a Singaporean mom trying to prevent her son from marrying a Chinese-American girl who comes from outside the vast-yet-insulated world of the ultra wealthy. Like so many of these stories, she as a parent is not necessarily a “villain,” but she and those of her generation are at least a source of stress for their kids as they try to carve out their identities.
EEAO flips the script, with Evelyn being both the figurative and literal hero. On the one hand, she’s a mother struggling with her non-serious husband, her teenage lesbian daughter, her judgmental elderly father, and a tax audit on the family’s laundry business. On the other hand, her endless string of failures apparently have made her the perfect candidate to stop the destruction of the multiverse. To say that it’s rare for a character like Evelyn to be this kind of protagonist is to make the queen of understatements.
Through the metaphor of the multiverse, I find that EEAO explores so many facets of that Asian intergenerational experience. It’s stated that Evelyn made sacrifices to move to the US from China, and that she has a tendency to leave a lot of goals unfinished, giving a sense that she’s, well, trying to be everything everywhere all at once. Similarly, the pressure she puts on her daughter to be better than her through a combination of shame and criticism—well-intended but nevertheless painful—is one of the major sources of conflict in the film.
By having all of this told primarily from the perspective of Evelyn, however, the Asian mom ceases to be a close-yet-distant figure in the story to eventually understand, and becomes the primary conduit through which these conflicting emotions are experienced. And it all comes down to trying to figure out how to deal with the expectations of others while trying to raise a child to exceed all expectations.
There’s actually a lot more I’d like to discuss about Everything Everywhere All at Once, especially the daughter and the husband Waymond, and how they each add to the wonderfully complex milieu that the film provides. But Evelyn is the main character and star, and the stalwart yet wobbly pillar around which the story is built. It’s an uncommon but welcome sight, and it has me wondering if I need to view my own mother a little differently—even if that doesn’t come easily.