Mom, Can You See Me?: Queer Grief in ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’

‘Everything Everywhere All At Once' explores the grief of my lesbian identity remaining unrecognized by my mother.

A24
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The first time my girlfriend and I watched Everything Everywhere All At Once, we squeezed our hands at the revelation that perhaps doing laundry and taxes together were all we could want in our short lives. 

The second time we watched the film, we took my mother, who was eager to see what people were talking about. With our hands held in our laps, we whispered ‘I love you’s with teary eyes when my mother turned the other way. When Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) grabbed Waymond’s (Ke Huy Quan) hand, I begged for a moment where my girlfriend and I could touch each other and have the montage of our memories play for the entire theater to see. For my mother to see.  

Everything Everywhere All At Once is one of those beautiful films where you are given space to experience the grief of not fully being seen. Often, queer people are left with a feeling of remorse. Our stories are tragic, without any empathy for our experiences of being rendered invisible by our families. I left theaters both times reduced to red eyes. As a lesbian daughter, I experienced both the pain my mother wishing that I was like someone else and the hope of being able to reach those generational gaps and heal each other. 

While this essay reflects my relationship with my mother, I do not want to eradicate that this story, in many ways, is inseparable from the Asian-American experience. Walter Chaw, Chris Karnadi, and Kylie Cheung are just a few Asian-American critics writing absolutely beautiful, visceral reactions to the film. In this essay, I speak about how I relate to the film as a lesbian daughter, but do not want to speak about the cultural experiences I am not a part of. 

I see aspects of my mother in Evelyn. She’s headstrong. A fighter. Stubborn to the point of digging her heels in the sand. She fiercely preserves family unity, even when the circumstances are no longer viable to do so. She tries to be so many things to everyone that she comes out as a hardened shell of herself, overridden with pessimism. To her, when you see good in the world, it’s naive. 

I know my mother does not see herself as being a catalyst for pain. Her life has thrown her so much heartbreak and yet she still finds a way to go about the day, even if her patience may get the best of her. In many ways, she does not understand the power she holds in withstanding the grief of her family who ignored many of her basic needs. 

I realize, even as I am writing this, that I am using these events to try to justify why she thinks of me as a mistake in her parenting. 

When Evelyn’s daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), describes her ability to control the physics of the universe, Evelyn frantically tries to make sense of the situation. She lists a multitude of reasons why Jobu Tupaki is possessing her daughter before culminating her frustrations into: You’re why she thinks she’s gay. To her, it’s just a statement of fact. To Evelyn, queerness is not a part of her daughter. It’s something that might be able to leave her. While Joy is openly attracted to women, Evelyn still has the belief that her daughter could grow out of her queerness.

A few months ago, my mother asked me something similar: If her parenting made me think I was gay. If she was a better parent, would I start liking men? When could this passing phase be over? Evelyn’s statement is like salt in a still-healing wound. This simple statement cracks Joy’s arrogance. Her persona collapses just long enough that she can look at her mother with vulnerability. Yet she shrugs the pain off and scoffs, trying to ignore it. 

I snuck a glance at my mother. She did not look away from the monologue. I brushed it off and pretended it didn’t happen. Joy composes herself. She explains that her mother does not even care to see the endless possibilities that they could have in the multiverse. It is this universe, her mother is trapped in erasing her daughter’s lesbian identity. Joy’s fury cuts through when she responds, “You’re still hung up on the fact I like girls in this world?” like it’s seen as antithetical to the rest of her life. This world implies a universe where her queerness is celebrated by Evelyn. 

Of all the pain that comes from seeing all universes, how does Joy feel about the ones where her mother understands her? Like Joy, I grieve that this universe is the one where I am a lesbian. She experiences my greatest fear, that her mother would treat her differently if the dominoes fell differently. 

I do believe Evelyn loves her daughter. Joy confides to Becky that her mother’s indifference is a way of showing she cares. She recognizes her mother’s love, just in different ways. Evelyn’s way of caring always reverts to preserving her family. She doesn’t want to face the shame of her father’s disapproval again. Joy represents the culmination of everything that her grandfather, Gong Gong (James Hong), disapproves of. Her mother’s desire to try to gain his approval inadvertently causes Joy to feel the same acute desire to be seen, thus repeating the cycle of intergenerational trauma.

My own mother has told me, “I can’t tell my family you are gay. I don’t have a problem with it. But they are my family. I hope you can see where I’m coming from.”

I thought, Why can’t you see where I am coming from?

Not taking well to the silence, she adds, “They’ll think I am a bad mother if they found out.”

* * * * *

Joy says this circular path of pain is how the universe works. She tells her mother that they keep facing these same demons, of wanting to be loved and seen. It is a cycle of trauma all encapsulated in a bagel. Once Joy sees all the possibilities of the multiverse, she projects that nothing matters to cope with the loss of not being able to be fully known by her mother. 

The scene that hangs onto me the most, in a film all about the entropy of the universe, is Joy’s silent conversation with Evelyn as rocks. On the Earth not suitable for life to form, they communicate telepathically. Their connection is undeniable. After Evelyn takes the journey through the multiverses, she realizes, just like her daughter, that nothing matters in the end. The world makes us feel smaller. 

After Evelyn comes to this same conclusion, she takes a baseball bat to her laundromat and declares she never cared about it anyway. Everything in the movie culminates in an act of pain and hatred for what she has been through. She takes out what she couldn’t have in this life on everyone else. 

I can’t see the screen through my tears. My mother has said the same lines about our childhood home; she has the same destructive tendencies to see everything she built up torn apart. Our memories, the patio, the backyard. As much as I wanted to get out when I was younger, to escape the shame I felt around my family for being gay, I hate her looking at the place with the same vitriol. Something clicks when I watch Evelyn destroy the laundromat. 

But in that same silence of the unformed Earth, Joy tells her mother she wished someone could see another world beyond her pain, to pull herself out of this self-infliction. She wanted a way out, someone to tell her that she was not alone. But the sense of pain surrounds them both. They are vulnerable to one another, yet it only further drives them apart. 

The scene puts into words the relationship between me and Joy. Although our lives are vastly different, our regrets have both eaten away at us like parasites. We came to the same coping mechanism of living inside of our shame. We both have created bagels as a testament to our heartbreak of not having a parent that is willing to see us. 

When Evelyn grabs Waymond’s hand to comfort him, they relive their happiest moments all with the slightest touch. However, it’s the final catalyst for Joy, as she feels like she will never have the ability to live the way her mother does. Everything that she cannot have is encapsulated in a single touch. Her mother can hold her father’s hand, but her mother diminishes the relationship between her and Becky to “close friends.” Her parents can show their affection in a way that she never has been allowed to. 

As my mother and Evelyn allow themselves to show affection, we, as daughters, suck inside ourselves in shame. We go around in circles, unable to truly see the world outside of our pain. We let ourselves do so. We do not want to have those difficult conversations with our mothers because we do not want to believe we have the power to heal each other. 

This is why Evelyn grabbing Joy first was so moving to me. Her mother is the one who realizes the pain that she has caused and takes responsibility for it. It is the older generation that allows the younger to heal. Her self-awareness is what drives her to love her daughter like she demands to be loved. Evelyn pulls Joy away so she can tell her how she sees her. All the evil. All the kindness. All wrapped into a daughter that she loves. 

Joy screams out to let her go. Yet Evelyn, ever stubborn, runs to the door to drag her out. She embraces her and tells her that there is happiness in life if she allows it. Her love for Waymond grounds her. Becky is Joy’s ground, the one that loves her despite herself. They are both deeply messy people. Love, the kindness of not being alone, is our way of getting through this life together.

In a world where anything is possible, Evelyn and Joy choose to be in their mundane lives because it drowns out the noise. Becky and Waymond are foils to their partners, they complement each other to make up for their weakest points. It makes their partners feel like the present is important. Together, Evelyn and Joy can see past their wounds and celebrate love with their partners. 

I continue reeling over this conclusion. The kindness in the world and the love that we experience are the things that propel our lives forward. Everyone will have regrets. Learning to live in the moment, to cultivate the relationships that tie us together, makes life worth living. Kindness is how we fight our way out of the despair that we can not control. 

Perhaps I will be the first to grab myself out of my familial guilt. Gradually, as we talk to one another, and embrace, I feel like my mother and I are about to collide, just like the planets in the montage at the end of the movie. Evelyn reduces her daughter to tears when she describes how if nothing mattered, it wouldn’t explain why she traveled across universes to find her. I could allow my mother and I space for us to heal. 

Love is the journey to letting someone see yourself as you are. Throughout the film, the gaps in the dialogue reflect their discomfort in revealing themselves to each other. I think about how, for so long, I did not feel safe enough to tell anyone I see myself as the daughter who wishes to be someone else. Joy and I are the same, collapsing into ourselves in hopes that will be seen by our parents. 

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* * * * *

After my mother leaves the theater, my girlfriend tells me that she thinks I am oversimplifying it. We are both as much like Joy as we are like Waymond. She tells me just because I saw myself in Joy didn’t mean she didn’t feel something analogous to her as well. We have to see each other more nuanced than one character or the other, as that was what truly makes the film special to her.

I realized that while I thought the film was about all the hurt I feel as a queer person, there were other interpretations that she saw in me. In that film, she saw me as the kind of person that lets her leave the noise of the everyday. Waymond’s kindness is a part of me just as her lesbian experience is reflected in Joy. I was so trapped in the idea of isolation, I forgot how we can be more than my family’s idea of us. 

Beyond my mother, beyond the shame, there was us. We experienced our lives through two different lenses. It is my partner, just like Evelyn and Joy’s partners, that makes me realize that love is the strongest way to see ourselves, in all of our messiness and despair. Just because nothing matters does not mean there is no happiness. Precisely because nothing matters, love is the only thing that fuels our humanity. 

There is a vulnerability in seeing yourself as both, as a partner. I am Joy and I am Becky. I am the kindness and I am the despair. 

And just like Joy, I am loved for it. It is the understanding of each other that my partner and I have, sharing our pain of not being seen as queer people, as children, where we are most human. 

Joy and Evelyn choose to live in mundanity. Not someplace where they live the most fantastic life. But the one where they can be seen for who they are. 

Everything Everywhere All At Once is not supposed to come to a single conclusion. You come out of the film simultaneously sad, angry, and in love. The intent is not to live in any one of them. Like queerness, it leaves you with a kaleidoscope of experiences to make sense of. 

Becky is not inherently nicer than Joy. Waymond might not be inherently nicer than Evelyn. In every universe, they are a different version of themselves, for better or for worse. My partner encourages me to see beyond the constraints I put myself in, to see myself as someone who can simultaneously grieve about my queerness and love greatly, deeply, in it. 

A24

* * * * *

When we get in the car from the theater, I ask my mother how she felt about the film. She takes a deep sigh and describes to me that Evelyn was facing a lot of regret in her life. She was ignoring the happiness in her life that her child gave her until it was too late. Evelyn was trying to mold Joy into something she was not. 

I ask my mother what she thought about Joy as a character. She says Evelyn didn’t understand her or her girlfriend, as she was from a different generation than her daughter. It is like she did not want to accept her daughter as an individual. But to my mother, this story wasn’t as important as Evelyn’s mid-life crisis. 

We sit silently, watching the power lines loop on either side of us. She tells me she wishes she could see what other universes she could be in. She tells me how she imagines a universe where she could be a movie star. I imagine there’s a universe where she finds a life-long partnership with a woman. Would she understand then?  

To my surprise, when my mother arrives home, she texts my girlfriend to thank her for coming with us to see it. She tells her that she appreciates her kindness and attentiveness. It was wonderful that she was able to spend time with us, she says, as she finds it immensely gratifying to see us both. 

While she does not dare to call her my girlfriend, she asks me about the apartment we are moving into in August. She gives us a gift to share. I ask about how her home renovations are going since the divorce. The place is looking up, she says, now that she has the freedom to do what she wants. It smells like lavender, she says, because she was not allowed to do it before. 

My mother says she’s slowly liking the house more. She’s trying to figure herself out. And she’s sorry if she hurt me. I do not know if she sees me as her Joy, but I can feel the revelations cut through me. She’s my Evelyn, pulling me out of the car, holding me. In her rare moments of vulnerability, she says she never experienced what I feel about her before, pointing at a picture of me and my girlfriend. 

For a moment, I can stand in that embrace, hoping that we can start seeing each other as the messy people we are.

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