Kindness Is a Radical Act in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once

There is a shot in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once of two rocks overlooking a beautiful landscape of mountains and valleys on a sunny day. These rocks are in fact the main character of the movie and her daughter in a universe different from their own, one where there are no people, only rocks. In this extended scene, they “speak” through on-screen text, a sharp contrast from the mad chase through realities that left viewers breathless a moment prior. It is also remarkably different from the beginning of the movie.

Spoilers? Spoilers!

I basically spoil the entire movie in this post, so this is best read if you’ve already seen it.

Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) lives with her husband in a cramped apartment above the laundromat that they own. Everything is vying for her attention: the receipts littering the kitchen table as she prepares for a meeting at the IRS building, the laundromat and its machines barely holding together, and her daughter bringing her girlfriend over for dinner, a situation Evelyn hides from her conservative father—who also happens to be going senile and living with them. Her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) also wants to have a word, but she doesn’t have time for him with everything on her plate, including the Lunar New Year party they’ll be throwing in the laundromat that evening. It’s enough to make anyone tear their hair out.

But Evelyn keeps it together, right up until something takes control of her meek husband during an elevator ride in the IRS building. It’s still Waymond, but a different Waymond from a different world, and he proceeds with clear urgency to open her consciousness to the multiverse. Suddenly, she starts seeing through the eyes of another Evelyn, one who’s in mortal peril, and it becomes impossible to focus on Jamie Lee Curtis’ IRS agent, Deirdre, and the crucial conversation they need to have about her business. When Evelyn punches Deirdre in the face—after nearly being murdered by her in the other universe—all bets are off.

Cuts between one world and the next happen at a dizzying rate, and scenes from different universes sometimes share the same screen, perfectly conveying Evelyn’s confusion. The movie serves up a reality-hopping chase as Evelyn tries to escape both the movie’s main antagonist and the goons her father (from another world) sics on her. It’s a good thing Evelyn knows kung fu.

Not that Evelyn, of course. Her busy life doesn’t leave much time for martial arts. It’s fortunate, then, that she can download skills from other versions of herself, like proficiency in martial arts, so long as she performs an off-the-wall action first. These acts of societal transgression are a highlight of the movie, eliciting groans and laughter alike, such as when Waymond inflicts paper cuts on the skin between each of his fingers, or when Evelyn must confess her love to Deirdre and make it sound genuine as Deirdre does her best to kill her. In particular, a prolonged combat sequence revolving around this mechanic had me laughing to tears thanks to some of the most unexpected action I’ve ever seen depicted on screen.

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is bursting with imagination, which elevates it above the usual kung-fu comedy and gives it a tone of levity that deliberately contrasts with the more serious issue at its core. But why must Evelyn start kicking ass, when all she set out to do was save her business? An agent of chaos and destruction is tearing through the multiverse, you see. An incomprehensible evil that threatens the existence of all universes. Her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu).

This version of Joy had been participating in her mother’s experiments to reach across universes when Evelyn pushed her too far and she began to experience—wait for it—everything, everywhere, all at once. Suddenly aware of all permutations of her life, of everyone’s lives, of infinite universes, including many in which Earth doesn’t even support life (hence the rocks), Joy sees exactly how tiny and insignificant we are as humans. She thus concludes that our choices don’t matter, that nothing really matters, that everything boils down to random configurations of particles with no rhyme or reason.

Joy wants a way out of her despair, and she has found one. By putting everything on a bagel—her hopes and dreams, old report cards, every breed of dog, everything—she caused the bagel to collapse on itself and become the ultimate black hole, the symbol of her depression. And it turns out that she’s been running amok through universes in the hopes of finding an Evelyn that understands her, one who would walk into the bagel with her as she ends her own meaningless existence. Oh, and possibly all universes everywhere, too.

It’s no wonder then that a team from the prime universe is trying to take out Joy, and then Evelyn when she refuses to kill her own daughter, opting to save her instead. These are the people she’s fighting throughout the movie, an endless string of goons led by the prime version of her father (James Hong). Though Evelyn ran from her father to America in her youth to be with Waymond, she was never able to shed the weight of his expectations, which stand in for their culture’s expectations. When his agents chase Evelyn to keep her and Joy apart, they represent a traditionalist society trying to stop her from connecting with her queer daughter. A queer person questioning the relevance of established structures is a fearsome threat indeed.

When Evelyn stands up to her father by introducing Joy’s girlfriend as just that, her girlfriend, instead of her “very good friend,” as she did at the start of the movie, she does it less for her daughter and more for herself. She’s throwing off the chains. She then receives her final “weapon” from Waymond when he tells her to be kind. In a world where everything seems bleak and everyone is out to get us, kindness is the most radical act we can commit. Empathy is how we recognize others as people, and that’s why Waymond sticks googly eyes on everything, because he sees even inanimate objects as worthy of consideration and respect. Evelyn realizes he’s not simply meek or naïve, as his kindness has made him seem. Caring is harder than not caring. Caring is how we connect.

Invested with this new philosophy, Evelyn fights every person standing between her and Joy with kindness, literally, by granting desires for BDSM or fixing personal problems like misaligned vertebrae all in the middle of a kung-fu brawl. Only then can she catch up with Joy, who by this point has resolved to step into the bagel alone. She asks her mother to let her go, but Evelyn cannot do that, because even if we’re tiny and meaningless on a universal scale, it’s through our shared connections that we give our lives meaning. Evelyn pulls her daughter out of the bagel and convinces her to stay.

At the very end, Joy asks her mother if she still wants to do her New Year party. Evelyn says, “We can do whatever we want. Nothing matters.” It’s a cheeky rejoinder to Joy’s nihilistic outlook, but also a statement to the effect that no “thing” matters: people and relationships do.

Everything, Everywhere, All at Once is a lifeline that helps to pull us queer people out of this world’s shit bagel, and terrific fun besides. Michelle Yeoh and Ke Huy Quan will reach into your chest and put googly eyes on your heart.

Poster for Everything, Everywhere, All at Once painted by James Jean, courtesy of A24 Films.

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