Everything Everywhere All at Once is a cinematic enigma. While the film’s exhilarating multiverse visuals gripped the (googly) eyes, its storytelling and themes captured the attention of multigenerational and multicultural audiences. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, collectively known as the Daniels, Everything Everywhere All at Once is a profound meditation on the importance of empathy and compassion.
For the Asian community, the award accolades for the film’s predominantly Asian cast have been particularly exhilarating to watch. According to IGN, A24’s multiversal hit is now the most-awarded film of all time, surpassing The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. On top of its massive commercial and critical success, Everything Everywhere All at Once has helped clear the path for Hollywood to invest in more authentic Asian stories to be seen on the big screen.
When a Story Hits Too Close to Home
Beyond the absurdity of the multiverse, the Daniels takes a relatively grounded thematic approach as it examines a type of parenting that’s prevalent in Asian families – helicopter parenting. For the uninitiated, helicopter parenting is a term that describes a behaviour where parents pay extreme attention and hover unnecessarily over their children. The alarming rise of helicopter parenting in Singapore led then Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam to warn against it in 2019.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn’s (Michelle Yeoh) controlling nature is detrimental to Joy’s (Stephanie Hsu) life and although it may not have led to destruction, it has factored into her depression. Although the intention behind helicopter parenting is usually good, studies have shown that helicopter parents are more likely to have children who suffer from mental health issues. Instead of misinterpreting diversity, the absurdist comedy-drama delivers a powerful story that allows us an insight into the psyches of millions of people around the world.
Narratively, the film utilises the concept of the multiverse to explore intergenerational trauma in a surrealistic story. Evelyn’s own baggage with her father has manifested over the course of decades, resulting in a toxic relationship with Joy. Even though Evelyn loves her daughter dearly, her trauma has trickled down to Joy. We see the transfer of pain from one generation to the next.
The Allure of Nihilism
The structure of Evelyn’s real-world illustrates the limitations of her reality, which is filled with overwhelming disappointment, exhaustion, and a reluctance to new ideas. The film’s embrace of nihilistic themes grabbed the attention of contemporary audiences who have long wrestled themselves with the purpose of life in an ever-evolving world.
Nihilism refers to the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless. Jobu Tupaki, the version of Joy that had her mind broken by the Evelyn in her universe, is the personification of nihilism in Everything Everywhere All at Once. According to studies, zoomers are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the idea of purpose and meaning. Whether it’s climate change, political inequality, or growing wealth inequality, young people are getting bombarded with information that is often bleak in the digital space.
Young people are drawn to nihilism because of its alluring philosophy of freeing themselves from societal expectations, cultural conventions, and suppressive traditions. The school of nihilism doesn’t give us answers, but it does allow a belief that our reality is temporary and without meaning. However, Everything Everywhere All at Once argues that the belief in nothing is ultimately corrosive to our being.
It’s All About Bagels and Googly Eyes
In the film, the bagel as well as its antithesis – the googly eye – represent two major symbols. The bagel represents the universe of meaningless emptiness, whereas the googly eye symbolises the emergence of value, joy, and love in the presence of nothingness. Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), the meek and goofy husband of Evelyn, reminds her that there is a place for kindness in every universe. Furthermore, the two symbols also represent a comedic take on the principle of yin and yang.
Evelyn follows Jobu Tupaki through infinite realities, trying to decipher the mystery as to why she’s in pain. It’s her declaration that she’d choose to be with Joy even if she could be anywhere in the multiverse that resolved the central conflict of the narrative. Over the course of its runtime, the film boldly embraces empathy and kindness as tools to overcome the challenges in our lives. Everything Everywhere All at Once doesn’t just reject the notion of succumbing to nihilism, it outright refutes it.
In spite of Gen-Z’s adoption of nihilism, they’re more likely to report mental health concerns and seek treatment than all other generations. Perhaps, the willingness to open up about mental health struggles is indicative of an inherent self-worth that’s within. As exemplified in Everything Everywhere All at Once, it’s worth exploring different types of strength and what it means to be strong when you’re compassionate. In the face of pain and desperation, the answer is not retaliation nor submission, but joy and kindness.