A thirteen-year-old girl who spontaneously combusts into a giant red panda. An aging laundromat owner who discovers the various dimensions of an infinite multiverse. The concepts behind the former, the animated Pixar film Turning Red, and the latter, the live-action A24 film Everything Everywhere All at Once are worlds apart. Other than the obvious overlap of Asian personal and cultural representation, the films’ styles, scopes and audiences are wildly divergent — at least at first glance.
The real connection between Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once is how they both depict pressure of parental expectations, albeit from very different perspectives. We come into this world as reliant beings who, without the care of our parents, wouldn’t survive, so it makes sense that we follow their guidance. As we grow up, however, a gradual shift often occurs: we discover our place in society, and start gaining a sense of independence. With this, we realize the ways in which we differ from our parents. From these realizations, sometimes a rift develops between what our parents expect from us, and what we want for ourselves. It is at this point that parental expectations transition into parental pressures. This exact moment is what Turning Red and Everything Everywhere successfully capture.
Meilin Lee is Turning Red’s protagonist, voiced by Rosalie Chiang. She’s an outgoing teenager, and also strives for perfection in every aspect of her life, both to please her own ambitions and those of her mother, Ming (Sandra Oh). Her days revolve around earning perfect grades, her tight-knit friend group, and her undying love for 4*TOWN — a popular boy band in 2002, the year the film is set. Her nights are spent helping her mother at her family’s temple. She applies her confident attitude toward this job, considering it another “to-do” in her well-balanced and long list of tasks.
In contrast, there’s Everything Everywhere All at Once’s 20-something-year-old Joy (Stephanie Hsu). She struggles to connect with her mother Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), and often can’t carry on a conversation with her. Their exchanges are mainly composed of grating insults, extended silences, and a growing feeling of alienation from one another. Joy’s crippling insecurity and pain at her mother not accepting her girlfriend, Becky, inhibits her from connecting with her mother. Her seeming timidity and lack of confidence is why it’s baffling, particularly at the start of the film, that the antagonist of Everything Everywhere All at Once, is, ultimately, Joy.
Well, sort of. The antagonist Joy is also known as Jobu Tapaki, an all-powerful version of her from an alternate universe who has the ability to jump between universes. Because Jobu is subjected to so many expectations from the Alpha-Verse’s version of Evelyn who pushes her to use her powers, she can harness any reality she wants using only her mind. Evelyn’s primary becomes to stop Jobu’s master plan to escape these expectations via destruction, which, if successful, would destroy every universe.
The stakes may be different, but both films revolve around a battle between mother and daughter.
Meilin’s transition into a red panda ignites the divide between her and her mother, Ming. A metaphor for both her menstrual cycle and puberty, it is only after this event occurs that she starts taking risks and going against the overwhelming number of expectations that Ming has laid out for her. She goes through stereotypical teenager behaviors, including lashing out and lying to her parents, slacking off in school, and spending all of her free time with her friends. These actions lead to further tensions, as Ming tries to interject her presence in all aspects of Meilin’s life. She bars Meilin from letting her panda out, spending too much time with her friends, and, most horrifyingly, from attending the 4*TOWN concert coming up. There is a key similarity driving both of their actions, though. Regardless of what she is doing, Meilin is always conscious of her mother’s looming presence, constantly worried that her journey of self-discovery will divide the two of them forever. Unbeknownst to her, Ming feels the same way, afraid that she will lose her daughter. Neither of them can voice their opinions to one another.
For Meilin, every step she takes toward forging her own identity is accompanied by the worry that whoever she becomes will not satisfy Ming. This is amplified because of the sacrifices Ming has made in order to give Meilin every opportunity. What Ming doesn’t realize is that by constantly forcing herself into Meilin’s ventures, she is making her expectations for her daughter to succeed feel more like pressure to conform. Because neither character takes the time to voice their anxieties, they begin to drift further apart — despite their love for one another.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, we never actually see the backstory of Jobu cracking under the weight of her mother’s expectations as she is pushed too far. We only see the result. Because she was never granted the space to develop her own identity, Jobu has none. This explains her dissatisfaction with life and her overwhelming desire for anyone to understand, and relate to, the struggle that she is going through. The character is a manifestation of what Joy will become if her strained relationship with Evelyn continues its current trajectory.
Through this, Everything Everywhere All at Once introduces another issue that drives parental expectations: individualism. At the beginning of the film, Evelyn is convinced that her struggles are hers and hers alone. Whenever she talks to Joy, she disregards her daughter’s feelings, sending her into fits of sadness and anger. As she discovers the multiverse, Evelyn is forced to come to terms with the fact that she isn’t the center of any universe. This transition allows her to finally see Joy as a real human being, someone constantly shaped by the thoughts, opinions, and insults that she, as her mother, doles out.
Neither film suggests that parents should view themselves on the same level as their kids. Instead, both films state that parental expectations come about when parents see their children as extensions of themselves, rather than as independent beings.
Ming’s and Evelyn’s struggles to treat their children as independent beings aren’t entirely their fault. The plots of both films place a very strong emphasis on the role of the extended family. One of the most enjoyable gags in Turning Red involves Meilin’s grandmother and aunties bursting through the temple’s door to help her deal with turning into a panda. Similarly, a repeated motif in Everything Everywhere is Evelyn tiring herself and her family out to cater to her father’s every need, hoping to avoid his judgements. When Ming and Evelyn are forced to deal with their parents face-to-face, they assume a similar role to their children, constantly worrying that their parents are disappointed in them.
Cultural factors play a significant role in parental expectations. In Turning Red, Ming imparts the traditions to Meilin, specifically, honoring her ancestors, respecting her parents, and following tradition. In her journey of self-discovery, Meilin never goes against these three mantras. She constructs her identity around both tradition and modernity. She spends time with her family and her friends. She watches Cantonese soap operas with her mother and goes head-over-heels for the boy band commercial breaks.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, Evelyn’s attempts at imparting wisdom to her daughter fall flat as their relationship is too fraught with tension for Joy to take anything away. Evelyn realizes that to truly repair the cracks in her and Joy’s relationship, she must abandon everything that she knows.
The root of parental pressure in both films, and a core element of their climactic sequences, is fear. Meilin fears that becoming her own person will divide her and Ming forever. Joy fears that she and Evelyn are too different to ever connect. Ming and Evelyn respond in similar ways. Ming tells Meilin that, “The farther you go, the prouder I’ll be.” Evelyn tells Joy that even though every alternate reality awaits, she “will always want to be here with you.” Their statements are simple, but there’s a reason their lines are so powerful. For the first time in the films, we feel like mother and daughter truly understand one another. And there’s something quite beautiful in that.