Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
All at Once.
I remember thinking, this is kind of a weird name for a movie, even if it is about the multiverse and shifting realities. But I’m a big sci fi fan, so of course, I jumped at the chance to see it when my friend said she wanted to see the movie, again, with me specifically. Mom’s day out for both of us. Check. A… m.o.v.i.e. I remember movies from a time pre-pandemic: there’s a big screen, right? And food? I like food. Sign me up. (j/k). I seem to remember movie theaters being more crowded though—my friend and I had almost a private viewing. And sitting practically on top of my friend by the end of the film, after laughing so hard I cried, crying because I was so sad, gaping in shock, horror, and even disgust, and wondering what I just saw, I reflected: this movie was perfectly named.
I felt everything, everywhere, all at once. Hope. Sorrow. Joy. Hilarity. Disbelief. The experience felt intimate and profound, but also, silly. I am a deeply silly person. I don’t like most comedy because I think it is often intentionally mean. But when Evalyn Quan Wang (Michelle Yeoh) finds her daughter, Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu) or Jobu Tupakia, in a reality where they are both literally rocks, I couldn’t breathe for laughing so hard. And later I cried when the nihilistic Jobu-Tupakia-rock wiggles to a cliffs edge to throw herself off and her mother follows her off the same cliff.
I found out later that this film is about intergenerational trauma. Makes sense. The Evalyn we follow through the film is special, but not because she’s so great. She finds out she is the absolute worst version of herself in every dimension, and therefore, has infinite potential. A more confident, sexier, and less silly version of her husband, Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) shows up and teaches her how to access the different skills she has in every other version of herself because he believes she is “the one” who can defeat Jobu Tupakia. The only trick: Jobu Tupakia is her daughter. In sexier Waymond’s reality, Evalyn is a top scientist who studies “verse-jumping.” But she pushes her daughter too far, and Joy’s mind splits: she now lives in all realities simultaneously and she can do anything; and it is too much.
The multiverse as a metaphor for trauma is rather compelling to me. It speaks to the way in which different realities and experiences impose themselves on others as a matter of fact rather than malintent. These realities necessarily co-exist in interrelationship but may compound the weight and confusion of present experience. To some degree, I see through my mother’s eyes, and my grandmothers before her—for better and for worse.
I have read great deal of work by Black feminists, Chicana feminists, and womanists who discuss the importance of ancestors—which I hear, but I am not sure that I really understand. I hear that we may locate our ancestors’ survival and hope, and reconstruct ourselves in the reconstruction of history. I hear that for white women in particular, this means taking responsibility as well. But when I think of my ancestors, I often think of compounded alienation. “[God] punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation” (Exodus 34: 7). Understanding “sin” as alienation and a brokenness of relationship, I read this verse as testifying to the realities of intergenerational trauma. We live in a reality of alienation, compounded by the alienation we were taught which was learned in the preceding generation. And as Gloria Anzaldua tells us in her important work, Borderlands: La Frontera, recognizing that reality can be excruciating.
Jobu Tupakia has become “excruciatingly alive to the world” (Anzaldua, Chapter 3, Borderlands: La Frontera) in her more than hybrid reality; and in this fusion, everything feels meaningless to her. She puts it all on a bagel. She wants Evalyn to come to the bagel with her, so that they can both be destroyed. Everyone else wants Evalyn to fight it, and in the process, she too splinters her mind.
I find it important here that even in her nihilism Jobu Tupakia reaches out to Evalyn. She wanted Evalyn to splinter, to be like her, to understand her; so that they could die together. Truth telling. “This is how it feels (mom).” “This is how I feel (mom).” “Do you understand now?” And what is perhaps most profound, is that Evalyn does.
After watching the film, another friend of mine called me crying, “Why would they do that? Why would they make this impossible dream.” She railed against the fantasy that our mothers would understand us—that they would hold this trauma with us. And Everything Everywhere All at Once makes fantasy into reality. Evalyn holds it all and still tumbles off a cliff after her rock-daughter to stop her from going to the bagel.
Evalyn pursues her daughter violently, attacking the minions that stand between her and Jobu Tupakia. But hearing the sillier, kinder Waymond entreat her to stop, though, she stops. She ascends the stairs to her daughter through the onslaught by fulfilling the fantasies of those around her. One man falls to the steps holding puppies. Another gets the sexual satisfaction he’s been longing for. The scene is pure Joy; and Evalyn gets her daughter.
Catharsis across the multiverse—an onslaught of restored relationships. A statement of hope in the midst of fracture. At one point Jobu Tupakia/ Joy asks her mother is she really thinks she can just be in one reality now that she is aware. Evalyn assures her she will, but the final scenes show us this is not without an act of will. She still splits, distractedly sliding into other lives. Hers is a praxis of constant vigilance and choosing love.
There is so much more in this beautiful text to consider; but I will end here with the hope of a mother. I hope for my daughter. Maybe dealing with my own fractured reality, my ancestors, will help her live with hers.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.