Cinematic Chat: generational cycles in “Everything Everywhere All At Once”

by Elsa Ying (’23) | March 10, 2023

Art by Kylie Tran (’25)

Since its release in March of last year, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s absurdist comedy-drama Everything Everywhere All At Once has received widespread acclaim. The film centers around Evelyn Quan Wong, a Chinese-American immigrant running a laundromat with her husband, Waymond Wong, and her daughter, Joy Wong. It’s during a visit to the IRS when strange things begin to happen, and Evelyn is introduced to the idea of a multiverse—and presented with a mission to stop Jobu Topaki, a different version of Joy who is an all-powerful being consumed with nihilism and seeking to die by a black-hole-like entity known as the “everything bagel.”

Despite the absurd details and comedic nature of the film, the chaos holds a deeper message about generational cycles and the choices that are passed down. It’s clear that Evelyn still seeks acceptance from her father after being disowned, as well as some validation that her pain was worth it. However, only after developing the same nihilism as Jobu Topaki and hearing Waymond’s plea for kindness does Evelyn slowly begin to learn how to heal from the damage that her relationship with her father caused.

In a chaotic yet moving sequence, the film switches between the different versions of Evelyn existing in other dimensions—from a movie star Evelyn talking with a CEO Waymond about what could’ve happened if they’d eloped, to an Evelyn who finished her taxes at the Lunar New Year party at the laundromat, to our Evelyn at the IRS with Jobu Tapaki and Alpha Gong Gong, her dad from Jobu Tapaki’s universe. 

Unable to give up on saving her daughter in the form of Jobu Topaki despite Alpha Gong Gong’s insistence that it’s futile, Evelyn suddenly asks, “How did you let me go? How on earth did you do it so easily?” As she fights against losing her own daughter, she realizes the love she holds for Joy—and the love she deserved from her own father. She’s therefore able to end her desperate search for acceptance from Gong Gong and have pride in her life, if not for herself, then for Joy, so that she doesn’t need to grow up with the same constant desperation for acceptance.

However, though Evelyn has resolved the remaining trauma from her relationship with her father, she still doesn’t fully understand her daughter. As laundromat Joy expresses her anger and hurt that has accumulated throughout the years, and Jobu Topaki reaches for the everything bagel, Evelyn is faced with all the versions of her daughter asking Evelyn to let her go. She does initially let go by physically letting go of Jobu Topaki in one dimension, but she slowly begins to wake from her nihilistic haze in the other dimensions.

In the laundromat, Evelyn tells Joy that although they fight and she could choose to be anywhere else, she would still choose to be with Joy. In a dimension where life never formed and the mother-daughter pair are rocks, rock-Joy jumps off a cliff, only to be followed by rock-Evelyn, tumbling after her daughter. Finally, in the everything bagel universe, when Jobu Topaki’s arm reaches out from the bagel, Evelyn latches on and pulls as tight as she can until Jobu is freed.

Not only does Evelyn heal the hurt she experienced from being disowned by her father all those years ago, but she’s able to learn how to hold onto Joy—not holding tightly without considering Joy’s desires, or letting Joy run towards self-destruction, but expressing her love clearly so that Joy can choose to come back knowing there is a place for her. In this way, the film highlights a unique nuance of generational cycles: real healing comes from not only overcoming your own trauma, but also being willing to learn how you have affected others and amend those relationships. It’s not a linear process, nor a once-done deal, but rather an ongoing cycle of listening when family members express their hurt, and actively choosing to give love how they need it.

Through visually stunning settings and crazy alternate dimensions, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once presents the case that love is choosing to be with someone despite the multitude of other things you could be doing with your life. And from this love comes healing, which, like trauma, is cyclical. It is not enough to heal from your own trauma or simply avoid the mistakes of your parents; it takes constant effort and growth. Throughout the painful confrontations in laundromat parking lots and almost-comedic fight sequences in IRS buildings, the film promises that the work is all worth it.

Categories: Column, Entertainment

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