Don’t Make Me Go achieves the rare feat of showing its hand too often and still not earning its final twist. Hannah Marks’s road movie full of awkward but sweet father-daughter bonding premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival this week before heading to Prime Video next month; the summer-set film sees its duo traversing the United States but was all shot in Auckland, New Zealand.
Also a coming-of-age story, the film is full of obvious references to an eventual heartbreak as Maxwell (John Cho) shields his teenage daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) from his terminal cancer diagnosis, believing that prolonging this truth until she is emotionally prepared will make her more equipped to handle his impending death like an adult. Of course, this backfires, and Maxwell’s guilt only increases as the film and the car truck on: Wally implores her father to come back to Texas with her one day to look at shooting stars because they’re something everyone should see “before you die;” she asks, bitter but somewhat joking, why Maxwell is “suddenly so obsessed with my future” when he insists they talk about college; he tries to thrust her into the arms of the mother who abandoned them both in a scenario Wally believes was tailor-made to humiliate her before he finally confesses that she will soon be left with no other family. There are too many jokes about dead parents, seeing heaven, and getting killed in a car wreck when Wally takes the wheel for Don’t Make Me Go to end in anything but tragedy.
Despite the formulaic nature of the film’s story and shot composition, it is still enjoyable; the chemistry between Cho and Isaac feels so natural in moments of both anger and laughter that you forget you are not watching a real father and daughter. Max channels all his resentment from his failed marriage and presumably inevitable death into his relationship with Wally, cramming years of parenting into a road trip that snakes through the Southwest and into Texas and Louisiana. Wally’s obliviousness to her dad’s health is grating at first, but it soon forces the tumor to take the backseat to both Max’s worries and the film’s plot. We know we’re headed for a crash at the end, but watching Max and Wally grow closer is a comforting distraction. Wally is happy to be a leader when her father is reluctant to indulge some luxury or step out of his routine, but equally happy to follow when he wants to impart life lessons, like shooting craps at a casino or dancing to smooth jazz and doling out romantic advice. Sure, most of the scenarios are cliché, but at least they’re sweet, and the fact that Don’t Make Me Go is Isaac’s feature debut makes them even stronger; she carries multiple coming-of-age plots, from sexual harassment to what to do with the rest of her life, with finesse and a studied, steady hand.
So why the twist in Don’t Make Me Go, which opens with a brief voiceover from Wally but then abandons the conceit for much of the film, feel ungratifying? The plot development is unexpected but cheap, and further cheapened by the return of a smug, “I told you so” version of Wally in voiceover. The nature of the twist makes you feel like you have switched to a soap opera without warning and echoes a melodramatic novel that was popular when I was in high school. (Incidentally, Marks recently wrapped a film based on that same author’s work.) It forces the film into a rushed, saccharine ending that dampens earlier moments of character and relationship development. Both Max and Wally spend the film confusing attention for love, whether from each other or from romantic partners. The end of Don’t Make Me Go confuses an attention-grabbing surprise for the well-earned love of an audience that has stuck by the characters through thick and thin, till death do them part.
This review is from the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Don’t Make Me Go hits Prime Video on July 15.