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Hollywood’s hot new trend: Parents who say they’re sorry

Everything Everywhere All at Once and Turning Red are part of a burgeoning subgenre: the millennial parental apology fantasy.

Evelyn stands in between her daughter, Joy, and forces who would like to kill her, as her husband Waymond also looks on.
In Everything Everywhere All at Once, a mother and daughter attempt to improve their relationship across the multiverse.
Courtesy of A24
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Spoilers for Everything Everywhere All at Once follow.

Jobu Tupaki, the main villain of the film Everything Everywhere All at Once, has seen the vast and infinite multiverse. She has experienced countless lives. Unimpressed with what she’s seen, she has constructed an enormous bagel that is seemingly capable of destroying everything, everywhere, all at once. (This movie is very weird.)

The other characters within the film wonder what Jobu (played wonderfully by Stephanie Hsu) is searching for, but the answer will likely suggest itself to the audience from the moment we hear the character’s origin story. Jobu used to be from a place the film refers to as the “Alpha Universe.” She was a girl named Joy (or, in the film’s parlance, “Alpha Joy”), and her mother, Alpha Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), broke Alpha Joy’s brain in pursuit of the endless possibilities inherent in the multiverse.

It’s a metaphor for parental abuse that isn’t even a metaphor. Turning your child into a science experiment to further your own ambitions is a deeply, horrifically abusive thing to do, and Jobu’s spreading of that pain outward from herself is an evocative depiction of how cycles of abuse perpetuate themselves.

The movie takes place across many, many universes, however, and our protagonist and point-of-view character is a different Evelyn, one who isn’t a brilliant scientist but, instead, a frustrated Chinese immigrant who owns a laundromat in the Los Angeles area and is facing a tax audit.

She isn’t abusive to her Joy, but she isn’t a good mom by any means. She’s way too critical, and she’s deeply uncomfortable with Joy’s long-term relationship with another woman. Yet these are offenses, the film argues, that could be overcome with a sincere apology and attempt to do better. Maybe. As such, Jobu meeting protagonist Evelyn will hopefully allow both to find some way to move forward together and forget the past. Maybe.

Everything Everywhere falls into a suddenly popular subgenre of film I call the “millennial parental apology fantasy,” alongside a host of other movies, most of them animated. (See also: Pixar’s Turning Red, Encanto, and The Mitchells vs. the Machines, among others — and that’s just in the last 12 months.) Instead of telling the time-honored story of a child learning just how much their parent has sacrificed for them, these stories tell its mirror image.

Instead, they are stories where the parent has to realize how badly they’ve treated their child. The ability to heal intergenerational trauma lies at least in part with that parent, and as the film wraps up, they take real steps to doing so, usually as the child realizes that the trauma did not originate with their parent but much further up the family tree. Better able to understand each other, the parent and child end the film with a better relationship.

Everything Everywhere takes that basic storytelling framework and stretches it to its absolute breaking point. In the process, it becomes likely the best example of this burgeoning subgenre, and one that points to the limitations of parental apology fantasy stories to talk about the actual damage intergenerational trauma can do to people. And all along, the movie understands that the fantasy of a parent who understands and accepts you as you are isn’t just a fantasy for the child. It’s one for the parent too.

The millennial parental apology fantasy, defined

For an example of how stories about toxic parent-child relationships are usually told, let’s look at a different millennial film text, 2017’s Greta Gerwig film Lady Bird. In that movie, Lady Bird struggles to get her mother to understand and accept her. Lady Bird is weird and artsy, and she wants desperately to go to NYU, something her family likely cannot afford.

Across the arc of the film, Lady Bird’s mom takes a couple of small steps toward her daughter, and she writes a lovely letter about how much she loves her child. But the dramatic climax of the film rests with Lady Bird, now living in New York, realizing just how much her mother did, indeed, love and support her, just in her own, incredibly critical, way. Lady Bird calls her mother and leaves a message that she ends by calling herself “Christine,” the name her parents gave her at birth, rather than Lady Bird, a name her mother only grudgingly called her.

In Lady Bird, both characters have to find ways to better appreciate each other, but the weight of the story rests, ultimately, on Lady Bird giving more ground to her mother than her mother gives to her.

The millennial parental apology fantasy looks at this whole scenario through a radically different lens, one where the parent is more to blame than the child. The parent has to realize the need to take their child as they are; the child usually has to realize that their parent’s horrible treatment of them is rooted in something bad their parent experienced.

Though we’ve seen several other parental apologies in movies these last few years, the climax of Turning Red, which came out a couple of weeks before Everything Everywhere All at Once, fits this new subgenre to a T. In it, our hero is a 13-year-old girl named Mei, who discovers that her family has been cursed. Upon reaching puberty, all the women in it metamorphose into a giant red panda when they are feeling emotions too intensely. And the start of puberty is not a time known for carefully modulated emotions. Mei discovers that she doesn’t terribly want to modulate her emotions. She likes being the panda, and it’s her life, right? She should get to do what she wants with it. Her mother disagrees.

Mei cringes as her mom pages through her doodle notebook.
Mei’s mom discovers her notebook full of drawings of a cute boy in Turning Red.
Courtesy of Disney/Pixar

Like Everything Everywhere All at Once, Turning Red is an immigrant story. Mei’s mother Ming is the daughter of Chinese-Canadian immigrants, and the dramatic crux of the film involves Mei realizing that her mother has been repressing even greater emotions than Mei has. In the name of pleasing her own mother, Ming tamped down her own red panda, which is the size of an enormous kaiju. Yet the end of the film features Ming realizing that if Mei wishes to keep her panda around, she should be allowed, even if that’s not the right choice for Ming. Mother and daughter understand each other just a little bit better.

Stories about parents realizing they’ve failed their children and should apologize before it’s too late were not invented in the last couple of years. One of my favorite examples, for instance, is the 1952 film The Holly and the Ivy, in which a reverend realizes over a family Christmas celebration that his grown children are terrified to tell him about their problems because they’re worried he’ll be disappointed in them. He becomes aware of the ways in which he has hurt them, and he comes to them to make amends, rather than the reverse.

What defines this recent crop of films, I would argue, is their focus on how the basic tropes of this story intersect with identity, particularly when it comes to the immigrant experience and queer identities, and their focus on the ways trauma, toxicity, and abuse cycle through generations. The fantasy here is not just that a parent will apologize to their child (though that is key) but also that said apology will snap the cycle of abuse so it no longer perpetuates itself. And that’s a fantasy that has appeal to the parent and the child.

What good is an apology anyway?

One question I have about these recent releases is: Why now? What is suddenly prompting millennial filmmakers to tackle this subject, in incredibly similar ways? And considering the production cycles for these movies, it would be impossible for them to have influenced each other. They were all being made simultaneously.

The easy answer is that plenty of millennials are now having children of their own, and having children of your own is a natural time to start thinking about the way your parents raised you. And in an era when the internet and pop culture have widely disseminated knowledge about, say, the nature and weight of intergenerational trauma, it’s much easier than it once was to look into your own family history and see the ways your parents were impacted by their parents and so on.

These movies also serve as reminders of how good parenting can easily curdle into recalcitrance if parents aren’t careful. The ways in which one watches out for a toddler become overbearing when watching out for a teenager, but it’s hard for any parent to make that shift in how they see their child. And what’s more, every parent screws up in one way or another, and it’s hard for anyone to admit when they’ve screwed up. Once you add the burden of a parent-child relationship onto that natural, stubborn inclination, bad things can follow.

The aspects involving identity are also important to the recent rise of this subgenre. Queer millennials especially have lived through a rapid shift in social acceptance where queer identities have become much more common in the mainstream, when the opposite was true when we were born. And often, our parents haven’t been as good at making that shift as we might have liked, which has led to conflict. So many of these stories involve queer characters for a reason: Coming out as queer is one of the times when parental acceptance is most desired and most likely not to be offered.

The Mitchell family tries to outrun the machines in their trusty station wagon.
The Mitchells vs. the Machines is a madcap road movie with a queer woman hero.

Even when stories about queer characters seem to feature accepting parents, the subtext can tell a different story. The Mitchells vs. the Machines features a queer woman who has a girlfriend by the film’s end as its hero, a rarity in animated films aimed at families. Ostensibly, the father she struggles to win the acceptance of is totally fine with her attraction to women; his issue is that she’s a would-be filmmaker and a weirdo iconoclast. “Artsy, weirdo iconoclast” is subtextually coded as a queer character, especially in family films (numerous queer women have found solace in Turning Red’s artsy weirdo Mei, for instance), the film’s use of subtext to beef up its queer text, without turning the dad into an outright homophobe, ends up being a neat way for the film to have its “struggles queer kids face” cake while quietly eating it under the table where many cishet people won’t notice.

When I describe this subgenre as a “fantasy,” I worry that it suggests that the very idea of parents apologizing to their kids is fantastical or that all of these stories take place in heightened realities where the rules of science fiction or fantasy are the norm. Instead, I think the fantasy inherent to this genre stems from these stories’ argument that an apology will eventually clear up any degree of parental toxicity. Stories, after all, require some sort of dramatic climax, and in the parental apology fantasy, the emotional climax usually involves that very apology. But in a movie, the story ends shortly after the climax. Not so in reality. And in reality, there are many sins that can’t be so easily solved with an apology.

What I love about Everything Everywhere is how it understands the seductive power and the ultimate emptiness of the fantasy of the apology that fixes everything. It situates the bad behavior of Evelyn on a continuum going all the way from “struggling to accept her daughter as gay” to “destroying her daughter’s mind in the name of science.” One of these two things is worse than the other, but the emotional effect on the child is incredibly devastating either way. And if an apology wouldn’t be enough to fix severe parental abuse, then maybe it won’t be enough to fix seemingly less serious sins as well.

The final scene of Everything Everywhere All at Once involves an Evelyn and a Joy who have seen all the multiverse has to offer and chosen to be versions of themselves with very prosaic concerns, because those versions of themselves might be able to move past the worst of what they have done to each other (or, rather, the worst of what Evelyn has done to Joy). Yet as Evelyn attempts to go about her life, the chaos and noise of the multiverse crowds into her mental space. She’s seen the worst she is capable of, and she cannot entirely shut it out. And there is at least one version of herself who was incredibly abusive to her daughter.

Everything Everywhere All at Once is the only movie listed here told from the point of view of the parent, not the child. And that turns out to be the key decision that gives the film an added boost. For as much as Jobu Tupaki might be searching the multiverse for a mom who’s only a little bit shitty, Evelyn is searching herself for a way to make it up to Joy with the minimum amount of work. As the movie ends, she’s accepted Joy’s girlfriend, but she remains overly critical of both younger women.

Evelyn can’t shut out the chaos of the multiverse because she is always trapped with the worst things she has been and has done. The fantasy of an apology that will forgive all sins is something the child wants, sure, but it’s something their parent wants even more. And such a thing is impossible to find, no matter how many universes you look for it in.