“You’re not going to like the way this story ends,” warns 15-year-old Wally (Mia Isaac in her debut role) at the start of actress-turned-director’s Hannah Marks’ Don’t Make Me Go— and she’s right. The story, penned by screenwriter Vera Herbert, follows single father Max Park (John Cho), who finds out his chronic headaches are actually due to a terminal tumour, and he has to choose between a 20% chance of surviving life-saving surgery or having a year left to live.
Only telling Annie (an under-used Kaya Scodelario), with whom he has a casual sexual relationship, about his tumour, Max chooses the latter in order to try and cram in all the years of love, support, and connection he will miss with Wally once he dies. With the promise of driving lessons, he convinces Wally to go with him on a road trip from California to New Orleans to attend his 20th college reunion, where he secretly hopes to reunite her with the mother (Jen Van Epps) who abandoned them both when she was a baby.
Ready for her rebellious streak and annoyed at her dad’s overprotectiveness, Wally is an average teenager. She’s careless, rude to her father, and focuses all her attention on soccer player Glenn (Otis Dhanji), who she has been “seeing” all summer while taking too long to accept that he’s not interested in anything beyond a sexual relationship and his video games. While lots of Wally’s behaviour is understandable because who wants to hang out with their dad at that age, her actions are consistently irritating and she never becomes a likeable character. Meanwhile, her dad just wants to find ways to connect with his daughter, which he longed for even before he came face to face with his upsetting fate.
Although Wally was reluctant about bonding with her dad on the road trip, they both eventually ease into each other’s different personalities for some tender moments, and Wally learns that her dad is an actual person with interests and life, rather than someone who exists just to ruin her life. Don’t Make Me Go captures a lot of the complicated father-daughter dynamic, set to an engaging soundtrack full of the likes of Iggy Pop, The Strokes, No Doubt, and Bon Jovi, which are used effectively within the narrative.
Marks is a strong director, which is showcased through her short but impressive directing filmography. There’s lots of emotion and drama in Don’t Make Me Go, as well as some light comedic moments, but the majority of the writing is generic, empty, and lethargic. Cho and Isaac are talented performers with satisfying chemistry, who allow us to see a struggling but developing connection, however, lots of dialogue exchanges feel quite cold considering this is a family drama that touches upon heavy topics.
Herbert is an ex-This Is Us writer but Don’t Make Me Go doesn’t go as deep as the excellent writing found in the popular heartwarming and emotional series that ended this year, which explores the family dynamics of a group of triplets and their struggles growing up, as well as their wonderful parents. It’s truly a shame that the same magic isn’t found here, but it may explain why Don’t Let Me Go appeared on the 2012 Black List of best-unproduced screenplays in Hollywood, but didn’t get picked up until nine years later by Amazon Studios in March 2021.
It’s impossible not to mention the big twist that is utterly heartbreaking in an already depressing film that begins growing optimistic towards the end. The signs were there, but it feels hollow and unearned, and will intentionally blindside most viewers. What’s worse is the voiceover narration that follows which explains everything. It’s somewhat inorganic, but there are perhaps limited ways to end a story like this effectively. There’s even a “One Year Later” jump.
Don’t Make Me Go is an intriguing story about the unpredictability of life, but its ending is a shock that will only work for those whose heartstrings are easily pulled.
Don’t Make Me Go is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
by Toni Stanger