Everything Everywhere All at Once, the groundbreaking, absurdist, reality-bending comedy drama written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert is a favorite for the 2023 Oscars. Revisiting the movie a year after its release, the core message feels stronger than ever and as always, serves as a catalyst for some serious personal reflection.
When I first saw the trailer for Everything Everywhere All at Once, all of my pleasure sensors immediately lit up. For two and a half minutes I remembered the long forgotten desire to leave my house and watch a movie in a theater. Yet, when pressed, I was unable to explain why it spoke to me, or even articulate what it was about. When people asked, my best response was, “Uh, um, an ordinary woman and a multiverse and I think…family?”
After its premiere back in March 2022, Everything Everywhere All at Once was a breakout success. Its release on streaming services and DVD and Blu-Ray that July allowed even more people to experience the overwhelming, heartbreaking, and life-affirming story while having their brain rearranged by the outrageous visuals and fractured storytelling style, but Everything Everywhere All at Once was one of the only movies that got me into an actual theater last year and it was well worth it. (If you have the opportunity to catch a re-release screening this week, make sure you do so.)
Now, a year later, I would be surprised to find anyone who hasn’t heard of the movie. It has justifiably torn through awards season, recently winning Best Film and Best Supporting Performance for Ke Huy Quan from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and coming away from the Golden Globes with a Best Actress award for Michelle Yeoh and another Best Supporting Actor award for Ke Huy Quan. It won in every SAG category it was nominated for, four awards from five nominations with only Stephane Hsu missing out to co-star Jamie Lee Curtis. It is, allegedly, counting all global awards bodies large and small, the most awarded film ever.
Now Everything Everywhere All at Once leads this Sunday’s Oscar race with 11 nominations. All four main actors, Yeoh, Quan, Hsu, and Curtis, received nominations, with Hsu and Curtis again battling it out for Actress in a Supporting Role. Additional nominations are Directing, Costume Design, Film Editing, Music (Original Song), Music (Original Score), Writing (Original Screenplay), and Best Picture. I have no doubt that it will sweep.
Related: 2023 Oscars Best Picture nominees: Which are worth your time, and which can you leave behind?
With all the love and recognition (and thinkpieces) Everything Everywhere All at Once has received over the last year, it’s helpful to remember the visceral joy and pain of watching the movie for the first time. For me, watching Everything Everywhere All at Once was a full-body experience. I howled with laughter at things that were hysterically funny and at things that were painfully relatable, and then I sobbed like a baby so much I could hardly make myself stop even after the movie itself had moved past the moment. I had to sit quietly for several minutes through the credits to pull myself together enough to leave the theater. I’ve seen over and over people describing that same experience, but often for different reasons, which I think speaks to the power of the narrative created by the Daniels.
There were a lot of things about Everything Everywhere All at Once that I wasn’t expecting, and the biggest was that Evelyn, Yeoh’s character, wasn’t likable. She was rude, she was unkind to her husband, ungenerous with her time and affection, she was critical and judgemental of her daughter, and in spite of running around like she was the only one taking care of anything, she didn’t seem to be able to get anything done. As Alpha Waymond tells her, she was living her worst life.
Why, then, when I think of myself as a pretty lucky person – I met my husband at 16, we’re still happily together 34 years later, we have steady jobs with good incomes, we have a college-age daughter who loves us and calls us every day – why do I relate so hard to Evelyn? Could I be living a better life? Certainly. Am I living my worst life or anything close to it? Definitely not. Still, these last six years have been hard and the last three within those even harder. We suddenly realized that many of our institutions are sitting on rotten foundations, waiting to fail us. The pandemic has revealed the casual cruelty we are willing to wield so effectively against people whenever we are mildly inconvenienced. The constant fear of being forced to make choices everyday that may very well mean life or death or unknown consequences to those around me is exhausting.
To protect myself from all of that noise, I find myself, sometimes, like Evelyn, withdrawing from participating in the world, while maintaining the fiction that I’m accomplishing everything I’m meant to do. Every day feels like a grind. I work hard, but I get nowhere. It’s literally all I can do to keep from going backwards. Fun? Who is she? I don’t know her.
Am I all of Evelyn’s worst traits? No. But I am some of them, sometimes. There are parts of me that don’t want to assume positive intent all the time, parts of me that want to be angry when things don’t go how I want (ask my child about the time I nearly cried because my husband changed the sheets, but used a scratchy mismatched set), parts of me that struggle to be open and available to the emotional needs of those around me when I’m tired, so tired, all of the time. I fear those parts of me, because sometimes I feel like I’m holding onto my humanity by a thread and if I let go one bit, I’m afraid I won’t come back.
Everything Everywhere All at Once isn’t a simple story told from point A to point B. It is fractured and confusing. It is, most of the time, busy and claustrophobic. It is a story within a story within a story, next to a story, behind a story. You have to work so hard to reassemble the story that it is inevitable that you get a little bit of yourself mixed in there, too. I think every person who watches and really connects to Everything Everywhere All at Once must come out with a slightly different message, because you stitch it back together with your own experiences and hopes and fears. For me, Everything Everywhere All at Once is primarily about mothers and daughters.
If Evelyn has withdrawn from participating in life, creating a facsimile of a life where she goes through the motions while standing apart, her daughter, Joy, struggles to find meaning at all. Our universe’s Joy is queer and has a girlfriend, Becky, who Evelyn continues to hold at arm’s length. Becky is lovely and sweet and is willing to endure endless family awkwardness to be with and support Joy, but Joy herself finds no comfort or happiness in her mother. There are glimpses of other happier times when they were a closer family, but Joy’s demeanor around her mother indicates that it has been a while since she has felt anything other than demoralized around Evelyn.
Alpha Joy, now known as Jobu Tupaki, has become an interdimensional villain, searching for Evelyn across realities and destroying everything in her path. But when she finds our Evelyn, she doesn’t want to murder her. She wants to bring Evelyn with her to the everything bagel, a kind of black hole of despair created by Jobu Tupaki. She wants Evelyn to walk into the bagel with her so they can be destroyed together. To Joy, nothing matters. Everything is too much and she craves the end of all things. Jobu Tupaki projects nihilism on a large, multidimensional scale. But the thing that grabbed me about her is that she wants her mom. She wanted to find this Evelyn and walk into nothingness together. Why? Why, if nothing matters and she wants it all to end, why is it so important that she take Evelyn with her?
There is such a deep longing there. Both Joy and Jobu Tupaki are tired and disappointed, but they keep coming back for their mother. Alpha Evelyn turned Alpha Joy into Jobu Tupaki by pushing her too far, expecting too much, wanting her to have everything. We don’t know much about the relationship between Alpha Evelyn and Alpha Joy, but it seems Alpha Evelyn gave her everything, everywhere all at once, but not the simple love and support she needed, so now she’s bouncing through the multiverse looking for the worst Evelyn, so they can end everything together.
For me, motherhood has never come easily. I think too much and worry too much. A friend of mine once did my birth chart and told me motherhood was in my “work” house. I understand basically nothing about astrology, but this stuck with me. I don’t want to make a bunch of large sweeping statements about motherhood, because there are a million different ways you can experience motherhood. This isn’t about capital M motherhood — it’s about me. The thing about motherhood, for me, is that it is a huge responsibility that threatens to take over every part of me forever. At some point I realized that I had to make sure I still had things outside of my child’s existence that brought fun and meaning into my life. I didn’t want my child to grow up holding the responsibility to make me happy with their actions.
As a parent, you want to give your child so much that you make their lives foolproof. You want to give them the tools and supplies and skills to become a better version of yourself. But what happens when you so fully dedicate yourself to that, and then your child grows into their own person who has to make their own mistakes? Can you, as a parent, switch gears and learn to support them on their own journey, or will you feel the need to henpeck and disapprove when they go their own way? Fucking up that balance, of giving support and tools and advice vs loving and supporting their own choices and decisions is probably my biggest parenting fear. And Evelyn? She is fucking it up. She loves Joy. She proves that time and again when she refuses to destroy her, but she’s so caught up in her own head, refusing to engage and be a part of Joy’s life now that she’s not in control of it. And Joy can no longer feel that love. If the person you love doesn’t feel loved by you, is that love at all?
I think I expected Evelyn’s growth to come sooner, or to be more dramatic. There is never a switch that flips and Evelyn suddenly becomes likable. It’s a slow, gradual process while experiencing many versions of herself. At first she longs to escape into one of the other lives, just as she has been escaping from her own life while in plain sight. The thing that tethers Evelyn to this life is Joy. To fail in this life is to let Jobu Tupaki take Joy, too. Even as she refuses to destroy herself or Joy or Jobu Tupaki, she still struggles to connect meaningfully to her own life. Evelyn learns, slowly and painfully, to see her own life and the lives of those around her as meaningful. Once Evelyn is able to really see clearly—see Joy for who she is, even the parts of Joy she doesn’t like — she can finally be there, fully, in the world she is living in. It is that true acceptance of Joy, that she can admit she wishes that some things were different, but still wants to be in this world with Waymond and Joy, that finally brings them peace.
I wondered, as I watched the movie: is it healthy that the message I’m taking from this movie is that I can fuck up being a mom so much that my child wants to destroy themself and the world, but will still crave my love and acceptance? Maybe that’s why I cried so hard. I don’t want them to have to fight for my attention. I want them to know I do love and accept them, even when they make choices I don’t like or understand. And I think they do. I do think that. But, still, there is comfort in thinking that even if I fucked it up, they might come looking for me anyway, to demand better until I was forced to look and really see them.
Everything Everywhere All at Once demands that we see even this one imperfect life as meaningful, and that reminder is something we all need.