Having finally decided to start going back to movie theaters after a couple years without them, I decided to trust the twitter-hype and see Everything, Everywhere All at Once, the latest from the direction duo Daniel Kwan and Scheinert, collectively known as Daniels. The creative engine behind Swiss Army Man, the combination of absurdist humor and emotional sentiment was also paired with a heavy dose of kung-fu-filled action sequences that managed to make everyone laugh while also introducing a twist on a well-known literary trope in the form of Chekhov’s butt-plug. The hype was very much real, and it’s exciting to see a film as wildly inventive as this one (and that isn’t part of an ongoing franchise that is slowly saturating our entire film output) getting so much love. Besides the uniqueness of it, it’s decision to focus on a middle-aged immigrant mother from China who runs a laundromat who is then turned into an action star is also a joy. I won’t say this is a film deeply interested in marginal members of society, at least not in any major or immediately political way in the same way someone like Sean Baker is always pursuing, but it is a film that is driven by certain specificities of the main characters identity. She feels caught between her need for her fathers approval and her lesbian daughters acceptance, and the economic background she works in constantly interrupts her in the form of semi-broken laundry machines, demanding customers and a stack of receipts she needs to get in order for a strict IRS agent. In spite of it’s multiverse plot, it is in its own way one of the most grounded films I’ve seen in some time.
The plot revolves around Evelyn, her husband Waymond and their daughter Joy. In the middle of a trip to the IRS for her laundromat business, Evelyn is pulled into a multiverse conspiracy where “another version of your husband from a different universe” informs her that there is a great evil threatening the multiverse, cryptically called Jobu Tupaki. This will eventually turn out to be another universe’s version of her daughter Joy, who we encountered earlier frustratedly asking her mom for permission to bring her girlfriend to a party being put on for Evelyn’s rather traditional father, and Evelyn saying no. When we encounter her later as Jobu Tupaki, she slowly reveals her destructive motivations. She has seen too much, everything, and come to the conclusion that it is all meaningless. I’m simplifying; the film is actually fairly elegant in its presentation of a fairly common experience many young people will have, that of realizing the bubble that is your family and household is not the whole world. This can be a disorienting experience for many people, as encountering an infinity of possibilities with no firm foundations is borderline traumatizing, but as far as depictions go of youthful angst go, Everything is one of the best I’ve seen, grounded in the specifics of Joy’s situation but still presented poetically enough that most people will be able to relate and understand her desire to detach from it, achieve a certain existential distance.
The film does an admirable job depicting something deep while also maintaining a lighthearted tone. I also appreciate that the resolution eventually has to come from Evelyn changing, accepting that her inability to accept her daughter’s queer identity is not a problem with Joy but with her own hangups that came from being raised by a strict father. In this way, the film does a good job of showing how inability to accept others and ourselves is both the product of personal issues and also something that the others do not need to accommodate; if you have an issue with someone’s identity, that is on you, a message some people in my life needed to hear when I started experimenting with nail polish and leggings. Sympathetic, psychologically insightful and affirming of different identities. This film should’ve gotten a 10/10 from me, and yet I’m stuck at a 7 or 8.
Since seeing the film, I've struggled to process it though. I've told people to go see it for the sake of it's wonderful spectacle, but I've also had a lingering problem with it. Over the past few weeks I’ve had a growing suspicion that the film has lingered with me for reasons of its message and the way it embodies a rather tired and boring narrative arc that I myself am struggling to get past.
I suspect this is because underneath all the chaotic fun and good handling of the queer theme there’s still a conservatism that runs through it, albeit of a very subtle sort, because in spite of it’s clear affirmation of queer identities, the ultimate resolution of the film comes in the form of parental affirmation for the queer daughter. Speaking as a queer (or gender-questioning) person who moved several states away to give myself space from my family, I found this to ultimately be quite disappointing. This is not a screed against my parents, whose love I do not doubt, but instead a questioning of what queer people should really want. I am too self-aware to say that I do not desire validation or acceptance from my parents, but I also know that I want more than that. Where the film falls short for me is in its reification of the basic family structure. The success of the film is Evelyn’s acceptance of Joy’s identity, and Joy’s reassimilation into the family. I want anyone who wants that to have it, but I also want to see narratives that map out what alternatives would look like and that don’t eventually close those alternatives down. It feels condescending to be told that what you really want is what you already have, you just haven’t seen it from the right perspective yet.
So why don’t more narratives do this? I suspect there are a lot of reasons, but I want to hone in on a particular one that’s had me thinking for some time. There’s a basic idea in Lacan (and that has been picked up by Zizek in a political direction) that we should not compromise on our desires, that desire can throw us off the beaten track and push us along new pathways of living. I want to hone in on the psychological reason one might feel compelled to compromise on desire, or pursue the films route of briefly entertaining a subversive desire only to close it down before it gets out of hand. It’s the reason I suspect there’s a lot of queerphobia in our culture today in all sorts of forms, but also a suspicion of radical political alternatives. If one admits those desires might make you whole (or at least put you in a better place than you are now), then an inability to realize those desires means you are on some level not living as full a life as you could be, that your life is in some way incomplete, not all it could be. More devastatingly we might realize that our incompleteness is both out of our control and yet not an eternal fact of life, that our anxiety or depression might be because of, say, a repressed desire to be in a same-sex relationship in a society that frowns on such a thing. There is no deep-down natural reason for this, and you can see attitudes around homosexuality and queer identities changing, but you had the bad luck to be born in the wrong time and place to live your life. A powerful emotional resolution would come from shutting down the possibility of such alternatives, accepting life as it is as a bitter pill that must be swallowed. In other words, seeing an alternative universe you could have occupied, an alternative timeline you could have lived through, but “choosing” your own anyways.
This is why I ultimately found Everything disappointing, because it gives us over an hour of other lives it’s character could have lived, and picks its own anyways. The biggest change is assimilating the queer daughter into this awful world. But I don’t want to be a part of this awful world. To the degree that I’m happy (it varies from day to day), it’s because I took major steps to put a certain distance between myself and my origins, gave myself the space to explore myself without all the baggage of the first couple decades of my life, and not just at a personal level but in forms of political activism as well. This is subversive danger of desire, and Everything ultimately doesn’t want us to pursue it. But I do. And I want stories that help guide me along as I do so.