Everything, Everywhere, All at Once: ADHD and Intergenerational Trauma

This review contains mild spoilers for Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022).

I always feel a sort of profound sadness when I’m consuming media that has an Asian-led cast – while I am eternally grateful for our stories to be told and our voices to be amplified – I’m also keenly aware of how different every Asian person’s life experiences can be. Crazy Rich Asians celebrates Chinese and Singaporean culture in a way that is entirely inaccessible to the regular person. Ann Liang, a viral author known for her K-drama stories and Asian characters writes fun rom-coms with unrealistic plotlines. Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was good but disappointing, Avatar the Last Airbender is a classic, with a lacklustre 2024 live action reboot on the horizon. While these pieces of media made me feel connected to being Asian, with common story threads of family, honour, and responsibility being woven throughout, I felt a lack of connection with the characters I was watching or reading about. 

I first watched Everything, Everywhere, All at Once in a crowded room with about twenty or so other people. We were strangers. I didn’t know their life stories, and they didn’t know mine, so it came as a complete shock to me that I was sobbing about twenty minutes in. I’d never felt so understood in a movie, and I’d initially clocked that up to the life experiences of the characters. Evelyn and Waymond Wang reminded me so much of my own parents, Chinese immigrants who moved to a Western country to pursue a better life. My parents don’t own a laundromat, but they’re familiar with restaurant services and the king of Westernised Chinese food, that I always found very insulting growing up. Joy, their daughter, is a disappointment to Evelyn because of her lack of Chinese language skills and her queer identity. This felt very familiar to me (too familiar), so I’d chalked my emotional reaction to the film as a kind of trauma-dump punch to the gut. I think this could go a little deeper, though.

The directors of the film, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (‘The Daniels’) had initially sought to make a film about generational trauma and cycles of abuse. Somewhere along the way, Kwan had discovered that he had ADHD, and then this plotline following Evelyn’s neurodivergence had made its way into the film. Seeing Evelyn as a neurodivergent character sheds more light on her character; her aspirations, her worries, her actions. 

At the beginning of the film, Evelyn is a failure. She’s running a laundromat where new problems seemingly arise out of thin air, and is currently being audited by the IRS. Her daughter is angry with her for not being accepting of who she is, and her husband is too fickle and naive to realise that she has actual problems to focus on. Instead of confronting her problems in the present, her head is stuck in the past and she’s too worried about the future; her constant verse-jumping is a way to escape to those alternate realities where she is more successful, or where she is happier. In one life, she’s a film star on a red carpet, in another, she is a kung-fu master, but, in the present, she stares at a seemingly never-ending pile of paperwork and cannot, for the life of her, make sense of it. This reflects Evelyn’s inability to focus, a trait common in us folks with ADHD. While we don’t learn a lot about Evelyn’s life in China, it’s safe to assume that in a hardworking Chinese household, she learned to associate this kind of “laziness” as failure. 

We also get to see how Evelyn’s relationships deteriorate as a result of this. She pushes away her family because she wasn’t entirely aware of how her actions had been affecting them. Waymond tries multiple times to serve Evelyn with divorce papers, but she’s too distracted with the verse jumping to truly comprehend how her treatment of Waymond has caused him to take such a measure. In her distraction, she admits to him that she saw her life without him, where she stays in China, and she admits that it was beautiful. Waymond is (understandably) upset, but, before he can react, his alternate form takes over and urges Evelyn to continue her mission. Evelyn is miffed. She had wanted to talk to her Waymond again, to tell him how much better off she would have been without him. In this universe, however, under the flickering yellow lights of a street battered in rain, the Waymond Evelyn left behind asks her whether it was really worth it. This conversation inspires one of the most heartbreaking lines I’ve heard in film – “In another life, I would have really liked just doing laundry and taxes with you”. 

To be told your entire life that you should make something of yourself, and then to fall short of that so spectacularly, is a harrowing realisation. To also realise that these impossible expectations of yourself are holding you back from finding happiness is another thing. Self-sabotage is the most potent kind, and Evelyn learns to live in the present and to accept her choices and the consequences of those choices. In the conclusion of the film, she finally learns to accept Joy as who she is, not what she wants her to be, and she finally understands Waymond, and how to love him because of it. 

Neurodivergence and disabilities are rarely discussed in Asian households. They’re a non-issue – can’t you just snap out of it or get over it? The depiction of neurodivergence in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, especially in an immigrant household was done beautifully, and I’ve never felt more represented in a piece of media. It deserved all the Oscars it won. Michelle Yeoh, I know you’re in a loving relationship and you’re 40 years older than me, but if you’re reading this please call me. If you’re Jamie Lee Curtis, the one white person in the movie with a supporting role who ended up with an Oscar… Please do not contact me. I will be very cross if you do.

Mandy Li

The author Mandy Li

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