Noah Berlatsky questions the tidy narrative closure of a film that wallows in the struggles of raising a queer child, rather than exploring its joys
When your daughter tells you she’s trans, you’re bound to have conflicting emotions. Trans people encounter a lot of prejudice and a lot of hatred; no one wants their child to face that. Beyond that, when you’ve seen your daughter one way your whole life, there’s a jolt as you suddenly realize their future, and their past, is different than you imagined. You’ve got to shunt aside some expectations, some hopes, and some dreams, and replace them with new ones. It’s a little disorienting, and a little frightening.
But it’s also kind of lovely. It’s great that your daughter trusts you to know who she is. And it’s great, too, that she isn’t who you thought she was. One of the great things about having kids is that they aren’t yours. They’re part of you and they learn from you—and then they go off and become actors and read Hegel and tell you that they’re your daughter. They are more than you knew they were, or imagined they could be. It’s marvelous.
Everything Everywhere All at Once gets at the sense of possibility, which for me has been one of the real joys of parenting. The movie lingers, though, for a long time on the fear and disorientation of it. As the dad of a trans daughter, I am not that enthusiastic about a film that presents a queer child as a problem for their parents, even if said problem is eventually overcome.
Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, the film starts as Evelyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh), an owner of a small laundromat, is dealing with multiple crises. Her elderly estranged father, Gong Gong (James Hong), is visiting. Her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan), is contemplating a divorce. Her laundromat is being audited.
The biggest difficulty, looming over all, is her relationship with her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Joy is gay, and wants to introduce her girlfriend Becky (Tallie Medel) to her grandfather.
“Evelyn does not kill her daughter, which is good, obviously. But just how much credit is she supposed to get for that?”
Evelyn is embarrassed by her daughter’s sexuality, by her daughter’s weight, and by her daughter’s general failure to be who Evelyn thought or hoped she would be. This disappointment literally blows up the world.
Evelyn discovers that there are infinite multiverses when her husband is suddenly occupied by a personality from one of the other worlds. She learns the breakdown of her relationship with Joy has turned her daughter into an interdimensional vortex of chaos, symbolized by an everything bagel—a donut-shaped black hole into which Joy has put literally everything in the world using her reality-warping powers. In order to save the multiverse, Evelyn has to learn to channel the powers and abilities of her alternate world doubles.
Joy, aka Jobu Tupaki, inhabits all the worlds simultaneously. When she manifests, she wears high-camp outfits with lots of eye makeup, attitude, and elaborate ruffles. Evil, destructive, infinite-possibility Joy is also flamboyantly queer Joy, an embodiment of her mother’s nightmares about gay dress, irresponsibility, and self-harm. When an alternate-universe Gong Gong urges Evelyn to murder her daughter, it’s barely even a metaphor for homophobia, and the violence—sometimes emotional, and not infrequently physical—that parents inflict on their queer kids.
Evelyn does not kill her daughter, which is good, obviously. But just how much credit is she supposed to get for that? When you’re a parent of a queer kid, you sometimes have some doubts and confusions. You have a duty to your child to get past them quickly, and not to make them deal with your issues or your crap.
Everything Everywhere wallows in the issues and the crap. For over two hours, Evelyn tours world after world—one in which she’s a brilliant singer, another in which she’s a master chef, another in which she’s an inanimate rock. There’s even one in which she has hot dog fingers and is gay herself—because anatomical alteration of the human race and lesbianism are equally unlikely?
In any case, as Evelyn rushes from world to world, Joy’s minions and those fighting Joy engage her in (wonderfully, ridiculously choreographed) martial arts battles, the physical combat mirroring her internal turmoil.
Ultimately, Evelyn learns the true value of acceptance, wins reconciliation with everybody in every world, and even irons out her tax problems. The conclusion finds her back in her own existence, order restored, with Joy back to being Joy and everything in its place.
I don’t know that ‘everything in its place’ is exactly the happy ending the movie wants me to think it is, though. Everything Everywhere seems to believe that infinite possibilities are fun and exhilarating, briefly. But ultimately, the multiverse, and the very queer, hyper-femme Joy, are wounds that have to be healed rather than an ongoing source of… Well, joy.
“In Everything Everywhere All at Once, queerness and possibility are presented as things to accept and to contain.”
In contrast, films which center queer people themselves, rather than parental acceptance of queer people, tend to end less tidily.
Julia Ducournau’s body horror found family drama Titane begins with an erotic dancer being impregnated by a car; she goes on to become a mass murderer, and then disguises herself as a missing boy to escape the police. She is more or less adopted by the boy’s father, a firefighter, who promises to take care of her cyborg baby when it emerges, killing her.
Or there’s Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone, about an infant stolen by a witch in 19th-century Macedonia. The witch teaches the girl to be a shapeshifter, and after she turns 16, she goes out on her own, turning into other women, a dog, a man, and back to a woman before she becomes a mother herself. The film ends with her granting her shapeshifting powers to her own daughter, who will become things her mother can’t imagine.
Titane and You Won’t Be Alone are both aware of and explore trans experience; despite claiming to contain infinite possibilities, Everything Everywhere All at Once does not. Moreover, in the first two films, identity is a series of lifelong transformations and reversals. A rupture of self is not a one-time crisis to be solved, but an ongoing process. That process isn’t always pleasant or inspiring—Titane and You Won’t Be Alone are both horror films. But being frozen in someone else’s idea of your life and identity isn’t so great either.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, queerness and possibility are presented as things to accept and to contain. Evelyn is the hero, because she eventually finds a way to embrace her daughter and ground herself back in her world. But acceptance shouldn’t be so hard, and parents should not see possibility as trauma. The movie seems to want to pat me, personally, on the back. But I don’t much like the implications of being patted on the back for something as easy as loving my child, whoever she turns out to be.