Everything Everywhere All At Once is a shockingly original movie in many regards. It follows a middle-aged woman hopping through multiverses to save the world using kung fu skills. It gives us the love story of two lesbians with hot dog fingers. It watches grown men race to shove an IRS accounting award up their asses. And it dares to examine the parent/child relationship through the refreshingly realistic lens of intergenerational trauma, something that films prior to this year have largely skirted.
In Everything Everywhere, writers and directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (the Daniels) tell a tale of three generations with Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese-American immigrant who operates a laundromat, bridging the gap between her elderly Chinese father Gong Gong (James Hong) and her rebellious, lesbian, American-born daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Previously estranged from her parents after eloping to America, Evelyn now takes care of her harsh, domineering, and increasingly senile father. At the same time she’s navigating her relationship with Joy, whose queerness irks Evelyn, at least in part because she’s worried Gong Gong will judge her for it.
A lesser film would have painted Evelyn as an overbearing, judgmental mother who needed to be taught a lesson and left it at that. Instead, Everything Everywhere serves richer (and more true-to-life) exploration of the Wang family dynamics. Evelyn’s own baggage (her father disapproving of her spouse, her fleeing to a new country, her bottling up emotions) has incubated over decades and given birth to a toxic relationship with her own daughter (her disapproval of Joy’s partner, nitpicking at Joy’s appearance, and keeping Joy at arms length). Evelyn is not an intrinsically bad person, and in fact she loves her daughter dearly. But her own trauma has trickled down to Joy, causing Evelyn, in many ways, to be a bad parent. And while the film never lets Evelyn off the hook for her own hurtful behavior, we clearly see the path pain took from one generation to the next.
2022: The Year of Intergenerational Trauma
But Everything Everywhere isn’t alone in portraying parent/child relationships this way in 2022. Numerous Hollywood titles this year, from Disney’s Turning Red and Strange World, to blockbusters Top Gun: Maverick, The Fabelmans, and even Halloween Ends, to recent releases The Whale and The Son, have grappled with intergenerational trauma. Rather than parents who are good or bad arbitrarily, this new batch of cinematic parents suffer from their own received trauma, explicitly conveyed to the film’s audience, which are reflected in their relationships with their children. In The Whale, Brendan Fraser’s Charlie is an absentee father to Sadie Sink’s Ellie due to the anti-LGBTQ+ persecution of Charlie and his lover from a religious group. In Strange World, father Searcher Clade (voiced by Jake Gyllenhaal) is overly protective of his son Ethan (Jaboukie Young-White) because his own father Jaeger (Dennis Quaid) abandoned him to go exploring. In 2022 films, parents aren’t archetypes, they are people dealing with their own shit.
In film after film this year, the parent/child dynamic has been unpacked through the lens of intergenerational trauma (or “trow-ma” if you’re Jamie Lee Curtis). The “I am an island” ethos seems to have been abruptly replaced by one of “hurt people hurt people” in which pain is easily passed around. Perhaps this is due to the 2022 slate of films being ones largely written and/or filmed post-COVID. During quarantine, mental health awareness rose with more people than ever before seeking out mental health professionals and even those without a therapist spending hours a week on TikTok, a popular platform overflowing with mental health advice (although quality varies greatly). As a culture, we are thinking about parental relationships, trauma, and emotional well-being more critically, and it only makes sense that would be reflected in scripts and films.
Old parents vs. new parents
Previous generations of cinematic parents fell largely into two camps: the noble and the abusive. On one side you have Mufasa from The Lion King, Chris Gardner (Will Smith) in The Pursuit Of Happyness, and Mamie (Laura Dern) in Little Women. On the other, you’ve got the parents from Matilda, Jane Fonda’s character in Monster-In-Law, or Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) in There Will Be Blood. While these movies all use the parent/child dynamic to great effect, they don’t offer particularly complex relationships where we understand both parties deeply. And even in more complicated films like Kramer Vs. Kramer, Lady Bird, and Marriage Story, we don’t witness the parent both receiving and then transmitting their trauma, something intrinsic in all parent/child relationships.
Just comparing this year’s crop of family films to last year’s demonstrates the remarkable shift in how movies present parents. In films like Spencer and Dune, the tragedies of the parents weren’t handed down to the kids. Belfast and The Tender Bar doled out glowing reviews to parents in tough situations. King Richard presented an eccentric father (Will Smith, playing the real-life Richard Williams), but one who is ultimately praised for his tenacity, while The Lost Daughter never even introduced Leda’s (Olivia Colman) daughters as characters. Even the most complicated family dynamics expressed in CODA and The Power Of The Dog seemed to lump parent and child together as a unit facing one problem, even if they have different solutions (drink in bed vs. poison your step-dad with asbestos). Disney’s 2021 hit Encanto is the only major exception as it tracks the grandmother’s domineering grip on the family back to her husband’s murder and then traces it down through her children (like Bruno) to her grandchildren.
Trauma served three ways
By comparison, the 2022 slate is bursting with so many intergenerational trauma films that I had to categorize them into three groups.
Trauma from the Great Greats: In the first group, which includes Everything Everywhere, the parent/child conflict doesn’t stem from any single outside force, but just from the standard wear-and-tear of unexamined trauma over multiple generations. The parent hasn’t sorted out their own emotional baggage and passes it onto the child, often for several generations. Both Strange World and Turning Red, in which three generations of women turn into pandas and can’t talk about their feelings, also fall in this camp—as do Armageddon Time and The Son, both of which star Anthony Hopkins, playing two different grandfathers of extremely different temperaments. In Armageddon Time, the experiences of his Aaron Rabinowitz’s character as an immigrant moving to America in turn make his daughter (Anne Hathaway) practical and strict, which make his artsy grandson (Banks Repeta) buckle under the pressure of school. In The Son, Hopkins just plays a stone-cold bitch, who leaves his son (Hugh Jackman) woefully inept at parenting a depressed child.
Trauma from violence: In group two, the parent’s trauma is much more acute. These parents are often trying to process, hide from, or drink their way through the horrors they’ve sustained, and those impact their kids second-hand. The Whale is the perfect example in which Charlie (Brendan Fraser), as a closeted gay man, felt forced into a straight marriage, then left his wife for a man who died due to anti-gay religious extremism. Grappling with the pain, he binge eats, becomes a recluse, and can’t be the father that his daughter needs him to be. Women Talking presents a similar arc in which mothers, sexually assaulted and essentially held hostage by a cult, are unable to parent well due to their own circumstances. Trow-ma expert Jamie Lee Curtis’ recent Halloween trilogy also falls into this camp, as her Laurie Strode was unable to mother well because she siphoned her energy into murdering Michael Myers. And Top Gun: Maverick sees Tom Cruise’s Maverick stumble as a surrogate father for Rooster (Miles Teller) due to fear of losing him in the same way Rooster’s father Goose died in the original film. Even box office horror hit Barbarian gets in on the intergenerational trauma action, although the generations are more difficult to parse out in the monstrous maze below the Airbnb.
Trauma from everyday life: Lastly, there are a handful of 2022 films where the trauma doesn’t seem sourced from grandparents or tragedy, but just from the world as a whole and the parent’s inability to cope with it. In Catherine Called Birdy, Birdy’s (Bella Ramsey) father (Andrew Scott), burdened by money problems and the everyday terrors of medieval life (serfs, the patriarchy, no plumbing), drinks heavily and tries to sell his daughter off in marriage. In Bardo, a father’s fame and multi-national life causes issues with his kids. And in the trifecta of The Fabelmans, Blonde, and Aftersun, each parent’s mental health issues make it hard for them to be the parents they desperately wish they could be. Sometimes just living is a lot of work, and adding the exhausting task of parenting to the mix is just too much.
This year, filmmakers have gone out of their way to tell stories of parents and children differently. They’ve interrogated the notion of parents as all-knowing beings, questioning the “honor thy father and mother” maxim and dichotomy of them as either saints or sinners. Rather, through the use of intergenerational trauma, they showcase parents who are ordinary, broken, and often failing—but who the audience can now empathize with. They try their best, but aren’t let off the hook. They cause pain, although now we know why. And they need to apologize, even if they deserve apologies themselves. Because after all, parents are just people too.