‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ Highlights the Immigrant Hustle Against an IRS Backdrop

Everything Everywhere uses taxes to highlight specific challenges immigrants must go through in life—or in this case, multiple lives.

By Lauren Silva

April 28, 2022

 

An early IMDb synopsis for Everything Everywhere All At Once read, “A woman tries to do her taxes.” At its basest, the film really does follow that description. But while tax season is the one thing that actually unites Americans across the country (albeit in frustration), Everything Everywhere hones in on a more specific experience: that of immigrants. 

Already a confusing and *cough* taxing process for American-born folks, the filing season demands immigrants make sense of the IRS’ dozens of tax forms and requirements while also often navigating language and cultural barriers. For immigrants, the tax and legal systems loom with serious consequences varying from fines to deportation while extending little help or sympathy.

Don’t worry, though—the entire two-hour film isn’t just about Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) filling out Form 1040. It uses taxes as a jumping-off point to highlight the specific difficulties and hurdles immigrants must go through in life, or in this case, multiple lives. 

That’s right—to portray this experience, the Daniels (directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) hurl us into a multiverse which, in as quick of a summary as I can make, is being threatened by an omnipresent villain with killer outfits, Jobu Tupaki, whose black hole of nothingness can only be stopped by Evelyn.

The Daniels’ stunning opening act throws us directly into, if not the deep end, then that part of the pool where you’re only just on your tiptoes. We see Evelyn at her family’s dining table, which is piled high with receipts from the laundromat she owns alongside her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) as they prepare for an IRS audit meeting. From there, we follow her to the kitchen as she makes noodles for her father (James Hong), then downstairs to the laundromat coin machine to help one customer, to the counter to help another, then back upstairs to find a missing laundry bag—all while fighting small verbal and emotional battles with her family members. Neither Waymond nor their daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) can get in a word edgewise—Waymond, to hopefully discuss their deteriorating marriage, and Joy, to hopefully get her mother to acknowledge her girlfriend. Meanwhile, Evelyn feels as though she is the only one who cares about their business or living up to the standards of her father, who is newly arrived from China. Our eyes flit between characters as we try to keep up with Evelyn, whose composure never breaks but still has its cracks.

Already in just one scene, the Daniels have given us a detailed look at the immigrant hustle. The Wang’s business overflows into their home and vice versa. They are not provided the privileges of separating the two or getting a break to breathe. They cannot even have proper conversations with one another, resulting in everyone feeling frustrated and unheard. The Wang family, like so many immigrant families, must work, work, and work harder just to try to make ends meet while their white customers move around them oblivious to their struggles and tensions. 

movie stills from A24's Everything Everywhere All At Once
Scenes from “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.

The Wangs struggle further at their IRS audit meeting, where inspector Deirdre (Jamie Lee Curtis) talks down to them and gives them little room for error or even help. At one point, the inspector inquires about the absence of Waymond and Evelyn’s daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), who is supposed to attend the meeting to help translate. Which brings us to another aspect of the immigrant hustle: that of the second-gen kid

Joy isn’t there because she’s fed up with her mother, who fails to recognize Joy’s queerness and individuality but succeeds in criticizing Joy for being an aimless, messy failure. Evelyn expects success from Joy—a thriving career, mental stability, heterosexuality. She wants Joy to call more, to know more of their language. She wants Joy’s life to be worth the potential life/lives she gave up in China to move to the U.S. with Waymond. 

Sound familiar? Immigrant parents, whether consciously or not, often place insanely unrealistic expectations on their children. Most truly just want the best for their kids and for them to succeed in the American Dream. But it sets immigrant kids up for failure (or at least decades of therapy) and often causes a rift between parents and kids, sometimes irreparably. In Joy’s case, she is ready to call it quits, not just between her and her mother, but merely existing. It’s a scene, a feeling, an experience, not so unfamiliar to immigrant families: there is so much pressure to be the picture of success that so often, we end up hustling twice as hard while our interpersonal issues are left to fester in the background. 

In the end, Everything Everywhere relieves us of this pressure by assuring us that actually, nothing really matters, so we really can just make it up as we go. In reality, or at least in this reality, there is no absolute place or person that we need to be.

Despite the nihilism, Daniels created in Everything Everywhere a film that absolutely does count for something, one that you cannot stop thinking about. It dives deep into an immigrant story, but it also explores the importance of being kind, especially in the face of unkindness or even apathy. And within the setting of several universes, it has the potential to have a hold across several demographics and interests (Harry Shum Jr. with a raccoon on his head! Dildo nunchucks! Hot dog fingers!). Some might even say it’s a feel-good American movie where a hard-working family successfully gets an extension on their taxes.

LAUREN SILVA is a freelance writer covering culture, identity, and health. You can find her work in Forbes, Insider, and the various half-used notebooks strewn throughout her Brooklyn apartment.