In Hannah Marks’s emotional Don’t Make Me Go, John Cho and Mia Isaac make for a believable duo as father and daughter, in two tremendous, lived-in performances that elevate the film. At least for the first three quarters.
Spoilers for the film below
For the majority of the film, Marks has carved out a sentimental, unassuming weepy drama with some poignant insights into father and daughter relationships with enough true-to-life moments of comedy such as the absolute horror that happens when a parent tries to teach their child to drive – the yelling about merging is enough to send anyone back to the feeling of sweaty hands on wheels and the impulse to yell back even when you know the person giving instructions is likely right. However, all of this charm and character-driven reflection is undercut but a narrative swerve so severe it’s likely to leave the viewer sucker punched and confused about what exactly is being sold in the ending moments.
Cho plays Max, a single father who is trying to keep up a good relationship with his teenage, temperamental daughter, Wally (Isaac). After suffering one too many headaches, he learns that he’s terminally ill with a tumor in his skull that will kill him in a year unless he’s to have surgery, a procedure with a high mortality rate. He decides he’d prefer to spend the time he has with Wally, instilling in her knowledge that will be necessary for the life she’ll lead once he’s gone. Wanting to reunite her with the mother that left them when she was a child, he brings her along on a road trip under the guise of making an appearance at his 20th college reunion. There’s enough of a sturdy base here that the rug being pulled out from us is doubly shocking because we were already expecting the tears, just not in the fashion Marks had planned.
That said, Cho and Isaac (about to have a big month with this and the social media satire Not Okay) have strong, believable chemistry. Cho, always underrated, is so naturally charismatic in this role that it begs the question (again) as to why he isn’t given these down-to-earth roles to play more often. Between this and the way too short-lived Selfie, he does well with relationship-focused stories, building strong camaraderie with the actors around him and displaying such an effortless, magnetic appeal.
Isaac is similarly strong, effusive, and susceptible to big, outsized emotions that are written all over her face. She is both excellent in Wally’s sullen moments of glaring at her phone, waiting for a boy to text, as she is in a showdown with Cho’s Max, unwavering in her character’s sense of betrayal, rage, and, ultimately, desperation in wanting her father to listen to her and bet on his life the way she would when she learns of his illness and refusal to have the surgery.
Both are given enough interiority in their lives, outside of their dynamics with one another, that we’re actively invested in their happiness. From Max’s close but not yet serious relationship with the French teacher, Annie, played by Kaya Scodelario, to Wally’s night adventure with a small town motel employee, Rusty (Mitchell Hope), the script makes sure to show the father and daughters lives in tandem but drifting, as they both gravitate to different circles and situations.
Written by Vera Herbert in her first feature-length script, the severe shift isn’t so much in tone as it is in intention. What was the point?
And here are where the real spoilers begin.
At the start of the film, Wally narrates that we, the audience, aren’t going to like the end of the story, but that she thinks we’ll enjoy the ride there. We trust that line because, based on the everything of it all, it’s hard to see a way out of Max’s situation. We believe he will die, that they will share some wonderful moments during the road trip and bond while hashing out longer dormant arguments, but that, ultimately, he will die and she will move forward.
Instead, after agreeing to try the procedure, to for once put himself and his wants for a greater life first, Wally, not Max, is the one to die. The hints were there, her narration seems to taunt us. And it’s true, we should’ve remembered her faintness after being kissed by a boy and her dizziness after a failed keg stand attempt. But also, to have Wally drop dead in a moment of pure joy for her and her father from an underlying, omnipresent heart condition, and to have him then have a successful surgery and live with Annie with what seems meant to be an uplifting message that while hey, she might be dead, but at least now her father can pursue his dreams, plays cruelly. Cho and Isaac imbue their characters with such spirit that to end the film in this fashion is a disservice to what came before.
It cheapens an otherwise soft-focused and beautifully shot film about the trials of parenting and growing up. More than anything, it comes across as a new storyteller trying to differentiate themselves from the crowd by introducing a twist that’s more unpleasant than the one audiences were anticipating, and it’s an indication that there’s certainly room for growth if the belief is that a shock death is a prerequisite for interesting storytelling.
Sure, it made me teary. But so does cutting a too ripe onion, or dropping my phone on my face at night. With enough aggressive output and/or force, too pungent a scent, just about anything can make me cry. A little girl tripping and dropping her sweet in the very wholesome, not sad at all, Old Enough on Netflix made me burst into cartoon tears.
All this to say that I don’t measure a film’s storytelling against its ability to reduce me to waterworks.
Before the last twenty minutes of the film, it had done a fine job at earning the emotions we were experiencing alongside the characters. It’s a shame it felt the need to second guess the story it had built. Marks is an enormous talent behind the camera, delivering a visually emotive picture and creating dynamic moments in otherwise boxed-in, stagnant set pieces. Cho and Isaac, again, are remarkable. The script just happens to cut it all off at the knees.
Don’t Make Me Go is out on Amazon Prime now. Watch the trailer below.