Who among us hasn’t dreamed of different universes in which we can exist as anyone except the person we are in the here and now? Out of exhaustion. Out of self-hatred. Out of fear. Out of some of those feelings, none of those feelings, or all those feelings and thousands more that we feel but cannot always name. It is perhaps the most universal dream, one that slices through cultures and languages to find a connection in how our eyes faze into the periwinkle sky and our minds drift towards possibilities that are endless in scope.
Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) doesn’t even dream of a different universe because she is so burdened by the one she lives in now. Her marriage is existent in name only, she has a frayed relationship with her elderly father, and she has a difficult relationship with her openly gay daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Their laundry business isn’t doing that well, either. Evelyn doesn’t even have the time to dream of the possibilities of other universes.
But when that opportunity comes before her, those dreams spill out in a cavalcade, as if they had been waiting simply for the right moment to be unleashed. There’s something additionally comical about the banality of the environment in which this opportunity comes before her, a banality that suddenly makes it all the more clear that she deserves better than what is around her.
A key strength of Everything Everywhere All at Once is that it is grounded in the emotional reality of its characters. No matter the sensory overload that threatens to engulf the audience from time to time, or if you didn’t keep track of the plot mechanics and movements. Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s direction and script is consistently and sharply in tune with their characters’ emotional motivations. The film therefore never loses its sense of self.
Nor does Everything Everywhere All at Once only give weight to Evelyn and how she tries to find her sense of self. Her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) is doing the same, grappling with what it means to be in a loveless marriage that instills within him a sinking despair that she regrets marrying him in the first place. Nor does the film belittle Waymond’s kindness and capacity to find the good in this hellscape world as a weakness. Kindness is often a method for survival and there is a real strength in that.
But perhaps the most important relationship in the film is between Evelyn and Joy. Being an openly gay child, especially as the only child in a family, can be more difficult than I can profess within the space of this review. Joy is bereft of her namesake, pushed beyond her limits and told that she should be grateful for what amounts to conditional acceptance. But conditional acceptance is not complete and open acceptance. Everything understands that the difference between the two can often be vast and feel insurmountable.
We treat love as a corny, cloying, cheesy element of storytelling. The thing we chuckle at and not with, the scenes in a movie that inspire the swelling of hearts. As a society, we treat love as something that deserves little but scorn. In a society dominated by patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity, that makes sense because society’s power relies on the suppression of love and connections that challenge the status quo. Without love, we are bereft, adrift, and find loneliness that is so deeply painful that sometimes we want to abandon our existence for the invite darkness of nothingness. That abandonment is deeply, deeply painful and I wish that more people were considerate of what it means for someone to make that leap.
Everything Everywhere All at Once doesn’t make the argument that love will solve everything. It’s too smart for that. Love is complicated, messy, entangled with our traditions, environments, and lived experiences. Sometimes love means being able to let go. Sometimes love means being able to decenter yourself and center others. Sometimes love means accepting that love is not always enough.
– This is a wildly difficult movie to discuss without spoilers and I urge you to know as little as possible about the film before seeing it.
Everything Everywhere All at Once opens in Toronto and Vancouver on April 1 and expands April 8.