“Don’t Make Me Go,” a very sweet father-daughter road-trip and coming-of-age movie, starts with a voiceover on a blacked-out screen, saying: “You’re not going to like the way this story ends.” The voiceover is compliments of Wally (Mia Isaac), the teenage daughter of Max (John Cho—Harold of “Harold and Kumar go to White Castle”).
Wally was right—I disliked the ending very much. Without spoiling it, I’ll just say that it’s an option that’s used in the majority of modern teen romances these days, so even though you’ll probably dislike it too, it’ll be so familiar that your initial feeling of annoyance, anger, or sadness will immediately distill into “Yep, shoulda seen that one coming.”
The reason the plot-twist smacked me in the face so hard is because I got won over. And that’s because “Don’t Make Me Go” is a delightful, well-told story, at the heart of which is one of more believable father-daughter relationships. The actors absolutely convince you that their squabbling, working it out, loving and appreciating each other, totally irritating each other, learning to have fun together, and teaching each other about life comes from a bona fide, lived-in place.
Max (Cho) is a single father whose doctor has just told him he’s got a bone tumor at the base of his skull that allows for only two options: 1) a surgery that has a 20 percent chance of killing him on the operating table, or 2) doing nothing and being dead in a year.
“No-brainer” is maybe a rude choice of metaphor here, but Max immediately knows he’d rather take that last year and prep his 15-year-old Wally for life-after-dad. Like teaching her how to drive or how to dance at her wedding. He doesn’t tell her about his condition; he just announces they’re going on a family road trip. Like most teens, she’s thoroughly engrossed in her social life and an incipient romance—hence the movie title.
At the same time, the news of his diagnosis shifts the dynamic between Max and casual girlfriend Annie (Kaya Scodelario) who can’t handle the heaviness.
So where are Max and Wally off to? John feels a family reunion with Wally’s mother Nicole (Jen Van Epps), who abandoned her, and who will be the only family she’ll have left after Max dies, is in order. And so they get on the road to his 20th college reunion, with driving lessons for Wally thrown in to sweeten the pot. Max knows his former friend (Jemaine Clement) who ended up stealing his wife, will be in attendance, and will know her whereabouts.
Why It’s Special
It’s a fun ride with Max and Wally because of the outstanding father-daughter chemistry between John Cho and Mia Isaac. This could have easily gotten into Nicholas Sparks-type overwrought emotional territory, but every time the story threatens to become predictably heartwarming or overly unrealistic, a complication emerges that keeps it all believable. It’s nice to witness a family dynamic that’s not too awesome or too flawed—their chief flaw is a lack of communication.
Dad Max tries too hard and ends up controlling things from his head (instead of from his heart, which is what Wally wants), which in turn causes her to have a difficult time confiding in him. He’s not a “helicopter parent” but does hover a bit. Ultimately, he’s got great kindness.
She’s not a stupid girl but often takes dumb risks hanging out with narcissistic teen boys. Max sits on his feelings; Wally’s got that precocious teen girl perception of people and social dynamics that’s decades beyond her years; she’s the one person in his world who can easily cut him down and build him up. And while the bonding and bickering is enjoyable, that sword of Damocles provides an aching tension throughout. Max’s struggles loom large, but Isaac makes Wally’s high school concerns (the aforementioned unappreciative, entitled, quasi-boyfriend, and getting grounded) no less tangible.
Mia Isaac, currently also starring in “Not Okay” (releasing July 29 on Hulu) is most likely a real, lasting star in the midst of a breakout moment. She’s got the charisma and the “It” factor. As good as John Cho is in “Don’t Make Me Go,” it’s Isaac’s movie. She’s 18, playing a very believable 15, but the main thing is that she’s just so believably his kid. Cho’s Korean, and Isaac’s Asian-African, but it’s the acting craft and the familial dynamic and history homework the two clearly put in, that makes it all work.
Again, the final act of “Don’t Make Me Go” has a big twist and, while there are abundant clues to its arrival, some viewers are going to feel cheated by it. It’s not enough of a reason to miss the movie, though.
‘Don’t Make Me Go’
Director: Hannah Marks
Starring: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Kaya Scodelario, Josh Thomson, Mitchell Hope, Jen Van Epps
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 1 hour, 49 minutes
Release Date: July 15, 2022
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5