Don’t Make Me Go opens on a black screen, with a narrator coming in via voiceover with this warning: “You’re not going to like the way this story ends.” That narrator is Wally, the teenage daughter and co-lead of the film, and since the movie was confident enough to place that warning at the top then I feel comfortable starting this review by agreeing whole-heartedly. I did not like the way the story ended! It was a bullsh*t ending! Now, I’m not saying it was a bad ending, necessarily, but it was an ending designed to be hated — a twist that is equal parts brilliant and cheap. It functions to highlight all the film’s themes, and also to suddenly subvert the genre for shock value. Is it there out of narrative necessity or blatant manipulation? A bit of both, probably. And I respect the hell out of writer Vera Herbert and director Hannah Marks for going that hard, even if I also resent them a little bit for it.
Of course, the twist wouldn’t be as impactful if the film leading up to it didn’t do the work to win you over, and that’s what makes me so angry — because Don’t Make Me Go is a well-balanced, lovely piece of pure charm. Max (John Cho) is a single father who has just received a terrible diagnosis: a bone tumor at the base of his skull that will kill him in a year unless he opts for a life-saving surgery that has only a 20% chance of survival. He wastes no time deciding he’d rather spend a final year preparing his fifteen-year-old daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) for life without him, rather than dying on an operating table in a week. Of course, he doesn’t tell Wally that he’s dying — he just tells her they’re going on a family road trip. And their ultimate destination? An impromptu reunion with the mother who abandoned her, and who will be the only family Wally has left after Max is gone.
Sounds heavy, right? Sounds like some real obvious Nicholas Sparks-brand emotional claptrap. But it isn’t, and that’s thanks to some clever writing choices and the unbelievable chemistry between Cho and newcomer Isaac. Every time the script seems in danger of becoming too saccharine, too heartwarming, too unrealistic, Herbert throws in a complication that keeps the characters and their journey grounded. It’s a refreshing portrait of a family that isn’t too perfect or too broken. Max and Wally are great people who are just flawed enough to be interesting, and their chief flaw is a lack of communication. Max is so wrapped up in being the dad he thinks Wally needs that he struggles to connect with her on the level that she wants, and because he keeps so much from her she has a hard time confiding in him. He’s overprotective; She takes stupid risks. He bottles everything up; She’s surprisingly perceptive. They bond and bicker and slowly open up in their adventures on the road, but every positive moment sours and every bad moment brightens and it all feels so pleasantly low-key… except for the secret hanging over their heads.
“John Cho as charming dying dad” is a total gimme — he could have phoned this in and it’d still work. Instead, there are moments in this movie that are amongst the best he’s ever been, whether he’s punching Jemaine Clement or singing karaoke. His sincerity is just wry enough, his dryness just warm enough, his hotness MORE than hot enough — and on that note, did you know Kaya Scodelario is 30 now? Because I didn’t. She’s still Effy from Skins to me, so when I saw her playing Annie, Max’s bootycall non-girlfriend, I did not believe it was her! I assumed there was some other, older indie actress playing John Cho’s younger-but-still-age-appropriate girlfriend that just happened to look like Effy. NOPE! Scodelario is 30 now, and Cho is 50, and I didn’t hate it for a bit — probably because the women behind the movie were smart enough to position the romance as being entirely in Annie’s court.
But I digress. As good as John Cho is in this movie, it’s truly Mia Isaac who makes him shine. She’s not just a very believable teen girl, but so believably his kid — the product of Max’s overbearingness and kindness, the person who can cut him down and build him up. His struggles loom so large over the film, but Isaac makes Wally’s high school concerns (an errant quasi-boyfriend, being grounded) no less felt. She doesn’t have many other credits to her name just yet (though she’ll also be appearing in Not Okay, a movie starring Zoe Deutch that will be out on Hulu at the end of the month), but I very much hope this is the start of some big things for her.
What impressed me about Don’t Make Me Go was how subtle it was for so much of its runtime, weaving a path through the tropes and cliches of the genre that kept it refreshing while still being the story you think it is. And then… that ending. An ending so divisive and intentional that Wally spells it out in the very first moment of the movie! I hate it, but if I’m being honest I kind of love hating it. Sometimes we just need to get socked in the gut by a movie, and if I’m going to be manipulated like this then at least I can say the movie showed me a good time first. I suppose it’s enough to have that warning, and know that no matter what happens, the movie is still pretty great. The end doesn’t ruin it. In fact, that’s the point, that the bad things don’t make the journey less worthwhile. Life is kinda bullsh*t too sometimes.
Don’t Make Me Go is available on Amazon Prime now.