When I was 13, I asked to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
I was racked with debilitating obsessive-compulsive disorder, forced to write each individual letter against a straightedge, hellbent on perfection. It was messing with my seventh-grade mojo.
The perfectionism, in turn, shredded my sleep schedule. I spent countless hours, belly on the floor, struggling with my math homework, pressing mechanical pencil to ruler. Parabolas? Forget about it. OCD combined with sleep deprivation and overmedication led to an angsty, early teenage flavour of nihilism — arguably the worst kind.
When my mum came to visit, we sat in her car in the hospital parking lot and I told her about it. Head swirling with brain fog, I tried to explain that nothing mattered and how that was pressing me toward a mental brink. She got it.
She told me, for the first time, that when she was 25, close to the age I am now, life was too much for her, too, and she tried to leave it. She saw me, understood me and sat there with me — a golden moment between generations.
That incandescent memory surfaced a couple of weeks ago, when my roommate and I went to see Everything Everywhere All At Once — a sci-fi action adventure about the emotional implications of the multiverse — at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Manhattan's Financial District.
Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) is a Chinese American immigrant who just wants to host a Chinese New Year party at her family's failing laundromat, but a suave alter ego of her husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), arrives to warn her that the multiverse is in danger. So Evelyn learns to "verse jump" — hop between parallel universes to access skills from other versions of herself — then realises that the dark force threatening the multiverse is inextricably linked to her estranged daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu).
Evelyn follows a nihilist alter ego of her daughter through infinite universes, trying to figure out why she's hurting. Then she's transported to a cliff. Two rocks — one tan and one dark grey — sit side by side, overlooking a ravine and mountains in the distance. It's silent for a while. Then captions appear — white for Joy, black for Evelyn. This, apparently, is one of the many universes where the conditions weren't right for life to form.
"It's nice," reads Evelyn's text.
"Yeah," reads Joy's text. "You can just sit here, and everything feels really … far away."
"Joy," Evelyn's rock says, "I'm sorry about ruining everything ..."
"Shhhh," Joy's rock says. "You don't have to worry about that here. Just be a rock."
"I just feel so stupid, " Evelyn says.
"God!" Joy says. "Please. We're all stupid! Small, stupid humans. It's like our whole deal."
Later, Joy asks Evelyn to let her go. Evelyn nods slowly and whispers, "Okay." In our universe, Evelyn lets go of Joy's waist. In the rock universe, the tan rock slides off the edge of a cliff, rolling down it. But then, in one world, Evelyn turns back to face Joy.
Maybe there is, Evelyn says, "something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this mess. And why no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always want to be here with you." The dark grey rock scoots to the edge of the cliff and tips off over it, rolling after her daughter.
The scene shattered me, then glued the pieces back together. And it reminded me of the importance of understanding inter-generational trauma — when the effects of trauma are passed down between generations — and addressing it.
Everything Everywhere All At Once, wrote its directors, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, on Twitter, "was a dream about reconciling all of the contradictions, making sense of the largest questions, and imbuing meaning onto the dumbest, most profane parts of humanity. We wanted to stretch ourselves in every direction to bridge the generational gap that often crumbles into generational trauma."
When 31-year-old breakout star Hsu took her mother to the LA premiere, her mum cried. Then her mum, who is from Taiwan, pointed to the screen and said, "That's me." For Hsu, it was an aha moment: Her mum related to Evelyn's character, who faces her own trauma in her relationship with her father, Joy's grandfather, or Gong Gong (James Hong).
"Life is so messy, and life is more than a 2 1/2-hour movie," Hsu said in a video interview from New York. "Life is a long time, if you're lucky. We don't get a script that helps us succinctly metabolise our sadness."
When she first saw the screenplay, Hsu couldn't believe what she was reading: The mother-daughter relationship was that poignant and relatable. She knew in her bones how complicated and precious that relationship was. And the transference of energy from the screen to the audience, she said, is very real.
"When you break open like that, you can't help but look into yourself and say, 'Okay, that pained me, and I need to look at that,'" Hsu said. "'Something in me is wanting to heal, and something in me is wanting to take that leap of faith.'"
Hsu thinks that's what art is for: to hold space for trauma and offer catharsis. There's a generation of women, she thinks, whose idea of strength hinges upon toxic masculinity, bravado and impenetrable toughness.
"Our generation and the younger generation is now exploring different types of strength and what it means to be strong when you're compassionate," she said. "And how, actually, empathy and radical empathy and radical kindness are also a tool."
Peggy Loo, a licensed psychologist and the director of the Manhattan Therapy Collective, saw the movie on the Upper West Side. She believes that the film can serve as an exercise in imagination for those who have experienced trauma.
Trauma can shrink the imagination, she said, if your main reference points for life's possibilities emerged out of traumatic experiences. To heal, we need to be able to see further than what we've known and been exposed to.
"There's this, 'We know who we are, we know who we want to be,'" Loo said by phone. "And then the gap between the two. How do we get there?"
To Loo, part of the strength of the movie lies in its sci-fi genre, which requires the viewer to suspend reality simply to keep up with the plot. It's the perfect counterpoint, she said, and a great way to flex the imagination.
Rather than neatly tying up loose ends, as movies typically do, Everything Everywhere mimics realistically what change can look like, by letting its protagonist make mistake after mistake.
Wil Lee, 31, is a software engineer based out of San Francisco. "Not to be reductive," he tweeted, "but Everything Everywhere All At Once is the generational trauma slam dunk film this season."
The way it fluidly weaves three different languages — Cantonese, Mandarin and English — he continued, is a spot on reflection of how many immigrant households actually communicate.
"It shows the linguistic barrier as a core component of this intergenerational misunderstanding," Lee said in a phone interview, adding, "The divide is so huge that you struggle to even find the right words to explain yourself to your family."
In one early scene, when Gong Gong arrives at the laundromat, Joy tries to introduce her girlfriend, Becky (Tallie Medel), to him for the first time. Joy fumbles with her Mandarin, and Evelyn jumps in in Cantonese, introducing Becky to Gong Gong as Joy's "good friend." Joy's face falls.
When Shirley Chan, a 30-year-old freelance illustrator based in Brooklyn, watched the movie in Kips Bay, it felt like the universe deliberately sent it her way, she wrote in a Letterboxd review, to let her know her own efforts were seen and to give her the courage to live as her most authentic self.
A week before she saw the film, Chan came out to her immigrant mother in Cantonese and spoke honestly for the first time about how her upbringing affected her. Some of the Cantonese dialogue, Chan wrote, was uncannily almost word for word what she said to her mum.
"But in my actual life, where this verse jumping doesn't happen," Chan said in a phone call, "I can see the moments in which she is trying, like asking me if a friend that I'm talking about is my girlfriend or telling me that she's happy for my career."
Sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, who specialises in pop culture, sees the universality in the specificities of Everything Everywhere. Everybody can relate to a dysfunctional family, regrets, transformation, laundry and taxes.
Evelyn is "like our parents, but seen through our lens", Yuen said by phone. "If our parents could evolve, that's who Evelyn would be."
I asked my own mum to see the movie, and she did, in Chicago's West Loop — her first time in a movie theatre in two years. She texted me a screenshot of an explainer (I needed an explainer, too) with one line circled in black: "When Evelyn reveals she always wants to be with Joy, no matter where they are, it is the start of a healing process for both characters."
Everything Everywhere All at Once is in NZ cinemas now.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Laura Zornosa
© 2022 THE NEW YORK TIMES