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I came out to my parents when I was 27 years old, and when informing my father that I was a lesbian, my mama said, "Your worst nightmare has come true." That phrase set off a nearly 12-year-long estrangement from my parents. We barely spoke during that span, and I built a different life 482 miles away from them. I learned, as abolitionist and scholar Tiffany Lethabo King wrote in Black 'Feminisms' and Pessimism: Abolishing Moynihan's Negro Family, that "there are other ways of naming each other as relations." I made other relations outside of the nuclear family.
However, the pandemic changed everything, (everywhere, all at once), and I moved back to the lands where I was born and raised in March 2020. I am not any less queer, in my orientation, gender, politics, or practice. If anything, living in a rural conservative area of the Bible Belt, queerness has become even more of a heartbeat. That's how I found myself buying a ticket to see Everything Everywhere All At Once at the Amarillo Cinergy theater near home one afternoon in October 2022. Studio A24's EEAAO had steadily been receiving buzz since its release. And as a Michelle Yeoh fan, I was ready for a film that allowed her to be the star, especially one that is so queer, anti-capitalist, and inadvertently abolitionist.
Within the first fifteen minutes, EEAAO sets up how capitalism has entangled Evelyn and her family in a cycle of isolation and harm. The Wang family business is operating a laundromat, and the parallel between spinning laundry in a washer and the destabilizing effects of capitalism and dealing with the IRS could not be more clear as the Wangs get tossed about—trapped under the expectations of the private family unit. Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), the patriarch, seeks release through the termination of the marriage. Joy (Stephanie Hsu), the daughter, avoids her family. Evelyn (Yeoh), the matriarch, is a workaholic.
The plot employs a multiverse as a storytelling device, setting them up as infinite and alternate life paths for each of the characters, where one decision made by a person—small or large—branches off into a different universe, resulting in multiple universes. Each version of a character in these other universes is known as a variant. Because of these multiverses, we see everyone in various roles, allowing the talented cast to explore many sides of themselves. It is through the multiverse that Evelyn is free to imagine more possibilities beyond marriage, wage labor, and motherhood. And it is Joy's queerness that sets everything in motion.
Divided into parts, the first section of EEAAO tells us everything we need to know about the Wang family: the dynamics, interpersonal relationships, frustrations, and flaws. We know this family.
The opening scene plays like an AMC theater ad, with a seemingly happy family laughing in the reflection of a dark room, the blue light of a television illuminating them. It looks fake, and it is. A door opens and closes, initiating a scene change, and the family disappears. We see the same room, only now it's a muted and dull palette. The camera pulls back, and we meet Evelyn at a desk littered with receipts she's attempting to organize. Her husband Waymond enters and asks if she has time to discuss something. We cut to a shot of Waymond and Evelyn's only child Joy. Her face looks pained and tired. But then a queer-coded person leans in and kisses Joy, whose entire aura shifts into a smile.
This is how we are introduced to Becky (Tallie Medel), Joy's girlfriend, and witness the contrast in Joy's relationships. When Evelyn appears, she immediately expresses disappointment toward Joy, passive-aggressively suggesting that Becky's uninvited appearance is a burden. When Evelyn's father (James Hong) appears, Joy feels the struggle of many diasporic children, speaking in halting Mandarin to her grandfather. She is unable to express to him that Becky is her girlfriend. Evelyn intervenes and introduces Becky as Joy's very good friend, erasing Joy and Becky's relationship.
While I am not part of the AAPI community and cannot speak about the experience of being the child of immigrant Chinese parents, my mother and her family migrated from Mexico to Texas, and I recognize similar patterns—and homophobia—in my own family. The way I present and who I love has been a point of contention since I was a child because queerness challenges the hetero-patriarchal structures of "family." The nuclear household is afraid of queerness, and the oppressiveness of assigned gender combined with capitalism and xenophobia has created a particular kind of alienation.
Many of us who have survived our upbringings—particularly LGTBQIA+ children—recognize the pain and havoc that our families pass onto us.
And this particular pain carries over into the multiverse. A variant from a different universe, known as Alpha Waymond, warns Evelyn that she is in danger, and that there is an evil threatening to destroy the multiverse. Only a variant of Evelyn can stop the chaos from tearing apart everything as they know it. As a critic, this is how I know cis-hets wrote this film. The chaos careening through the universes is none other than a variant of Joy, known as Jobu Tupaki. Queerness becomes the villain, and Evelyn, the married mother of Joy, is categorized as the superhero. More generously, I can also see this volta in the film as an occasion for Evelyn to change her reality, and stop cycles of harm, against her and against her child and her husband. Evelyn's mission is to return the multiverse back to the way it was, and destroy Jobu Tupaki's "perverse chaos."
Superficially, EEAAO centers the story of an overworked immigrant mother who struggles to keep the family business running while also being audited by the IRS. She doesn't have a healthy loving relationship with herself, her child, her husband, or her own father, who is visiting from China. We learn that Evelyn is not just a business owner, but a singer, a chef, and a novelist—she has a multitude of passions. We can relate to the ways that capitalism attempts to refuse us our dreams, and the crushing power of the government to attempt to squelch them. She is, as an alternate universe version of Waymond tells her, someone who is so bad at everything in this life path that she becomes supremely successful in others.
In more than one scene, television monitors are set up to surveil. The IRS audits the laundromat, and Evelyn recognizes the xenophobia of the IRS auditor's actions by continuously targeting the local Chinese community, even placing a lien on their business. The external conflict of the IRS is not the only force of capitalism at work. It is also the construct of family. The introduction of the state suggests the pettiness and cruelty of the government, especially with regard to money, but there is a redemption arc involving the auditor, Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), so there is never a condemnation of its violence. I think about William C. Anderson's question: "what shape might the radical imagination assume when the state is no longer the horizon of possibility or the telos of struggle?" in The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition. What would EEAAO have looked like if the nuclear family and the state were no longer simply the horizon of possibility?
Like me, many LGTBQIA+ people have to imagine universes without nuclear families. Some of us survive through the ability to see other possibilities outside of our realities and connect with people other than our blood relations. Forming a network of care is a practice I learned from queer and trans Black and Indigenous people, abolitionists, disabled and chronically ill dear ones. As theorist Jose Muñoz posits in his work Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity: "queerness exists for us as an ideality that can be distilled from the past and used to imagine a future. The future is queerness's domain." Thus, it is crucial to our lives. But from reading interviews with the directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, otherwise known as The Daniels, I can't say for certain this was their intention. Co-director Daniel Scheinert made an appearance on Criterion's Closet Picks web series, and upon choosing Spike Lee's Malcolm X as a favorite film, he called it a "riveting crime saga." I have a hard time believing someone who characterizes the life of Malcolm X, even in a Spike Lee joint, as a crime saga in 2023—the year of Google—can consciously situate EEAAO as an abolitionist story.
Instead, EEAAO has Jobu Tupaki wanting to destroy the multiverse to end the pain of her family and her relationship with Evelyn. And while that is a very relatable feeling that many of us queer and trans people have experienced, knowing and experiencing the violence and isolation that comes from our homophobic blood families, positioning Evelyn as the superhero against the queer icon Jobu Tupaki, who was pushed so hard by Alpha Evelyn that she split into multiple variants, borders on propaganda. Jobu is now everywhere all at once and the possibilities have revealed an existential pointlessness. If anything is possible, then does anything matter? When darkness and disappointment are an inevitability in all timelines, why care about anything at all?
But that's not how I view queerness or love in any form. As author Sophie Lewis puts it in Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation: "to love a person is to struggle for their autonomy as well as their immersion in care, insofar such abundance is possible in a world choked by capital." And so, Evelyn struggles in her love for Joy.
The film depicts the possibilities for Evelyn through the multiverses, and Alpha Waymond tells her that the tiniest decisions can make the most significant changes in their life paths. We see an infinite number of universes for Evelyn. Director Daniel Kim admits that the story is heavily drawn from his own immigrant Chinese family and his desire to offer hope to our mothers and to our families, that we can be more than just unhappy families trapped within capitalism. But it is at the expense of queerness that the value of blood family is upheld over those of care, tenderness, and chosen community.
When Evelyn meets Jobu Tupaki for the first time, Jobu is dressed like an Elvis impersonator and smoking a cigarette. Evelyn's instinct is to criticize her by saying that Joy's costume is stupid. Evelyn criticizes Joy every chance she gets, and we are told it's how she expresses love. Evelyn realizes Joy is Jobu, and misnames Jobu (constantly throughout the film), declaring that the great evil is inside her Joy. Evelyn blames Jobu for Joy not calling, for getting tattoos, and above all, for thinking that she is gay. Jobu pauses in disbelief that of all the concerns, Evelyn's biggest one is that Joy is gay in their universe. Jobu offers to help Evelyn open up her mind.
The Daniels are setting up the potential for healing between mother and child. Jobu tells Evelyn that she put everything—her hopes and dreams—inside a bagel. This is where we get the clearest sign of Jobu's nihilism and the fact that her family has pushed her to this point.
"You mean the monster that is inside my daughter?" asks Evelyn.
Here we witness the fulfillment of familial failure. Because in this universe, Evelyn has failed at everything—it is the failure of the family, the weight of trauma, the burden of choices, and mistakes are too big for Evelyn to hold. So, she pushes and punishes Joy to the point of breaking. Evelyn tells Joy she knows she has feelings that make her sad, not acknowledging her own part in creating some of these responses. Instead, she blames Jobu Tupaki. Jobu Tupaki says she knows the joy and pain of having Evelyn as a mother. Evelyn's rejection of Joy's queerness comes into play through flashbacks to moments when Evelyn erased or denied Joy's autonomy. Jobu promises that the everything bagel will free Evelyn from the box, but Evelyn responds that Joy is young, still changing her mind about everything, and only Evelyn knows who she is. The bagel, in a way, represents the queer futurity that Muñoz talks about. As Evelyn changes her fighting style to love, like Waymond, transforming bullets into googly eyes; she meets those fighting against her not with violence, but by giving them resources, meeting their needs.
Eventually, she reaches Jobu Tupaki, whose makeup now resembles Alex DeLarge from A Clockwork Orange—certainly not a coincidence to recall a character infamous for his nihilism and violence. Evelyn hugs Jobu and shouts, "I am your mother!" Joy asks Evelyn to let her go, let them go their separate ways because when they are together, they both hurt. Ultimately, Evelyn confronts her father and finally accepts who Joy is, introducing Becky as Joy's girlfriend, to her father.
I would argue that because of Jobu Tupaki, Evelyn is able to fully realize all of her selves. Everyone in EEAAO is unhappy, but queerness allows them all to break out of those roles superimposed by heteropatriarchal structures. But, they never escape capitalism, and we never get a clear push against the state or the family. The Wangs still have to pay taxes and the film places agents of the U.S. government, which includes Deirdre and security guards, who form against Evelyn to destroy her, in alignment with queerness. Perhaps innocuous and ridiculous, it still seems like a dangerous choice to make while states such as Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Mississippi, to name a few, persecute LGTBQIA+ people. So while Evelyn is able to reconcile with Joy, and I am left emotionally wrecked by this conclusion, EEAAO redeems the nuclear family. And the possibility of abolition disappears like the bagel.
The only hero of this story is the family. But it's only because of queerness. Once Evelyn lets go of everything she's been taught to believe in, she sees the possibilities of an infinite multiverse open before her. This includes destroying the idea of family and tradition. This film also offers the evolution of Evelyn's character in realizing that the chaos isn't Jobu Tupaki, but that of the family and its expectation.
And while I can appreciate the emotional range provided for Yeoh, I can't help but also acknowledge that as the mother, she is characterized as overbearing, inflexible, controlling, and emotionally inaccessible, while Waymond can just be the lovable sweet father who accepts his daughter as she is and is ignored by Evelyn. It's a choice to make Waymond, the husband, the father, the man, and the voice of sentiment. It is Waymond who asks Evelyn to be kind. In one alternate life path where she became a Kung Fu master and movie star, she tells Waymond she saw her life without him, and it was beautiful. Instead of marrying him and starting a family, Evelyn chose herself and lived the life she dreamed of—one without family.
The complexity of this film is that it reinforces the nuclear family while also simultaneously offering us the possibility of repairing harm. Most U.S. studio films can't escape the limitations of their storytelling or a commitment to portraying police or agents of the state as redeemable. The Daniels are no exception. We can hold multiple truths that this is a unique, absurd, and heart-wrenching film on how a mother changes for her child, while also acknowledging that compulsory heterosexuality plays a role in the family. That she is hurt by capitalism and the state. And that she also has hurt Joy and Waymond because she was hurt by her own father, by those systems. Inadvertently, it makes a stronger case for the abolition of the family. The systems fail all of them. In the foreword of The Nation on No Map: Black Anarchism and Abolition, Saidiya Hartman poses the question: "What might be possible when our freedom dreams are not tethered to old forms?"
Not tethered to old forms indeed! In this universe, everyone in the Wang family is trapped by capitalism, expressed through constant movement, an inability to rest, to listen, and to only hear the thrum of survival. EEAAO is about choices we think we have to make because we are limited by capitalism, carceral logic, violence, racism, and xenophobia. Queerness thwarts those ideologies.
In Carceral Capitalism, Jackie Wang writes: "The fissure was not a place where we could live. We could not hold on to the new social forms we invented in the process of revolt… Carceral Capitalism leaders were sent to neutralize the protesters. We were told to go home. We failed to make the revolution our permanent home. But the spark is kept alive, underground, waiting for the right conditions."
The spark is kept alive, waiting for the right conditions. Might those conditions be queerness? Might they be chaos? In an homage to Wong Kar-wai's brilliant In the Mood for Love (2000), within the universe where Evelyn is a movie star, Waymond delivers one of the most memorable lines of the film: "So even though you have broken my heart yet again I wanted to say, in another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you."
It's supposed to be a beautiful line, expressing a romantic feeling, but it doesn't resonate with me. We can't be limited by just representation. As racialized people, we should be able to share our stories and allow complexity and nuance, but representation will never liberate us. It will continue to replicate systems that harm us and others, as well as ideas of the nuclear family that have been forged from religion and colonialism.
As the great Fannie Lou Hamer reminds us: "Nobody's free until everybody's free." So we must build relations outside of the family.
I don't dream of doing laundry and taxes.
I dream of the end of this world and the possibility of the next.