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Irish Independent
Irish Independent
Azmia Riaz

Everything Everywhere All At Once: How the Oscar-tipped movie made generational trauma a hot topic

Michelle Yeoh plays a middle-aged immigrant in the US who is struggling through life

It’s impossible to sit through Everything Everywhere All at Once without crying your eyes out. It would be fair to wonder why this story of a Chinese immigrant family running a failing launderette in the US struck a chord with audiences around the world. But Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s film is being lauded as a shoo-in for Best Picture at the Oscars this year for a reason – it helps us understand trauma that isn’t entirely our own, the kind that is passed on through generations.

Although the story is a larger-than-life spectacle on screen – told between time jumps and the multiverse – it is, at its core, about a family. One of the first flashbacks in the film is Michelle Yeoh’s character, Evelyn Quan Wang, as a newborn being offered up to her father with the words, ‘I’m sorry, it’s a girl’.

Back in the present day, Evelyn has given up on several dreams – including that of becoming a singer, a novelist and a chef. She eloped to the US with Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan), a boy she met in primary school. Having inherited very little love from her own father, Evelyn struggles to share it with her husband and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) in their new life.

“There’s a reason why multigenerational trauma is now gaining traction. It’s because it’s helping people understand themselves better, and that has some validity to it,” said Kenneth Coll and Brenda Freeman, professors of counselling and educational psychology at the University of Nevada, who wrote the paper, Exploring Irish Multigenerational Trauma and Its Healing.

“The emerging definition of generational trauma relates to the idea that younger generations learn from and are affected by parents, grandparents and other extended family who are traumatised through unexpected or serious harm,” they explained.

"Also known as historical loss or transgenerational trauma, there is a growing body of evidence that this kind of trauma and its consequences is common in historically oppressed or colonised people.”

The cast of Everything Everywhere All at Once with Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. Photo: Michael Rowe/Getty

In one scene in the film, Evelyn stops daughter Joy as she’s storming away. For a minute, it looks like she’s going to express something vulnerable for the first time in their relationship. But all that escapes her lips are the words ‘You’re getting fat’. We can watch the trauma being passed on when the film cuts from Evelyn’s unanswered calls to her father back home, to her avoiding her own daughter trying to open up about her identity.

“I can fully see my movie as a reflection of this experience of generational trauma. But also generational love, like what it means to stretch in both directions like this,” said Kwan in an interview with The Verge. “I’m hoping that this movie creates space for that kind of conversation because we’re in the middle of it right now. We need that kind of conversation.”

Coll and Freeman think the conversation is particularly important to Irish audiences. They were working with the native American tribe Oglala Lakota, when it became evident from the traditional healers and other people they spoke to that substance abuse and high rates of suicide could be traced back to a history of genocide and colonisation.

“We were presenting our findings in Waterford to some counsellors. I watched the audience of trauma professionals reacting very strongly and getting emotional. When I asked them what they were thinking, they said – this is our story,” said Freeman.

In 2012, they went on to conduct a focus group with 12 Irish counsellors that explored multigenerational trauma and the culture’s resilience to it. The counsellors that Coll and Freeman worked with are now using the study’s findings to help treat their own patients.

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Everything Everywhere All At Once explores the multiverse from the perspective of a family

Coll said, “Awareness is key. In Everything Everywhere, you see how the mother finds awareness and that is the crux of the movie – will she be able to break that cycle for her daughter? We have referred to studies that confirm that without people growing aware of it, these multigenerational patterns continue to occur. A cataclysmic event like colonialism or the famine can be so influential on the people experiencing them that it gets passed on.”

A vital takeaway from the study has been the importance of language. “The revitalisation of Irish culture is one important way in which the country is trying to overcome the internalised negativity. Healing at the cultural level is to say our music, our language and our culture is important to us. And we want our history told the way we want it told,” they said.

Learning about the generational trauma in Ireland is also learning about the culture’s resilience. Siobhan O’Neill, professor of mental health sciences at Ulster University said, “We are now recognising that our mental health is not just about our own body and brain. When we talk about the struggles that our history has given us, we should not look past the resilience that we have shown in overcoming them. Trauma is adaptive. Things are passed on from a biological level to help us survive. So this is about making the next generation stronger.”

In Everything Everywhere All At Once, Evelyn is able to do the impossible. She witnesses every possible universe she could have existed in, and gets a taste of what life would have been like without her trauma. Faced with her daughter again, she finally grows aware of what she has passed on. Every rejection and every disappointment has led them to this moment: will generational love triumph?

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