“You’re not going to like the way this story ends,” a witty, 15-year-old, Wally Park (Mia Isaac) warns the audience at the start of the movie. By the time you get to the end of Amazon Studios‘ earnest dramedy film “Don’t Make Me Go,” you’ll understand exactly what she’s talking about. But don’t let that warning deter you from watching the film because it is a must-see. Directed by Hannah Marks and written by “This Is Us” screenwriter Vera Herbert, the film follows Max Park, a terminally ill father (John Cho), and his teenage daughter, Wally, who embark on a life-changing road trip full of love, secrets and corny jokes. Just like any drama-comedy story, the film perfectly balances a lightheartedness and overarching sadness that will have you laughing, crying — and possibly fuming — all in its 110-minute run.
Road trip movies are known for their heart and soul and teach us that it’s not about the destination but the journey along the way. “Don’t Make Me Go” wholeheartedly embraces this notion and creates a story that is filled with unrelenting optimism in the face of a harrowing awakening. Max, a pragmatic insurance salesperson, learns that he has a bone tumor on the base of his skull and must choose between having a risky, 20% success surgery the following week or accepting the inevitability of it all and only having a year left to live.
But, of course, all he can think about is his daughter. Who would take care of her? He points out to his casual partner, Annie (Kaya Scodelario), that he has no family left on his side and would have to resort to contacting Wally’s long-lost mother, Nicole (Jen Van Epps), who left her while she was still a baby. So, Max decides against the surgery because he believes it is the safest option. After all, he wants to prepare Wally for life without him and grant her the chance to meet her mother — even if that means not telling Wally about his tumor in the meantime.
In a sweet case of dramatic irony, Wally doesn’t know why her cringy, terrible-rapping father suddenly wants to take her on a road trip to New Orleans for his 20-year college reunion — which is his excuse to bump into Nicole and Dale, his ex-buddy who took off with his ex-wife. Between Wally’s teenage-level antics that have caused her to be grounded for the rest of summer and her budding romance with Glenn (Otis Dhanji), an ill-behaved, video-game-loving airhead, there’s already a lot on her plate. Wally stresses about wanting to be official with Glenn but not exactly knowing why she even wants to in the first place. Absorbed in her high school drama, there is no way Wally wants to be stuck on the road with her nosy, but still boundary-respecting, father. She eventually caves when Max promises to teach her how to drive along the way.
The father-daughter duo takes their rusty old Wagoneer and go on a trip from California to New Orleans, discovering new things about each other as the story progresses. “Don’t Make Me Go” paces itself nicely as the bond between Max and Wally naturally grows stronger. On their journey, they sing along to tunes, play some light trivia, snap pictures at roadside attractions, test their luck at roulette and hilariously land themselves on a nude beach by accident. Wally, of course, gets herself in some mindless teenage trouble along the way.
Meanwhile, Max can’t figure out a way to drop the bomb on Wally as to why they’re even on the trip in the first place. Despite his secrecy, Max makes the most out of the week-long trip and teaches as many life lessons as possible to Wally. They discuss potential college plans, and he even gives heartfelt advice to her about marrying a good man. There’s a heaviness throughout the film that’s sure to make you reach for a box of tissues in some of the more tear-jerking scenes.
What makes “Don’t Make Me Go” a compelling drama are the stellar performances by lead actors John Cho and Mia Isaac. Cho gives a stirring and sincere performance as Max makes audiences ache at his crushing situation, while Isaac leads with a delicate boldness that only gets stronger as she grows into her own. The father-daughter dynamic portrayed by the two is believable enough to draw viewers into the complex lives of Max and Wally. By the end of the film, both characters undergo changes that could not have been possible without the other.
Max, an almost-musician who is used to playing it safe through life, learns that it’s okay to take risks despite the possibility of things not working out. And Wally already embodies this belief with her daring, “take life as it comes” attitude. With her plans to see the world instead of going to college, Wally wholeheartedly believes in chasing after what you want instead of what is expected of you. Max also teaches Wally a valuable lesson about choosing a guy who makes you happy, which causes her to toss Glenn aside in a girlboss moment.
However, “Don’t Make Me Go” has a final twist that Wally herself tells us that we’re not going to like. And she’s right. While the film does a spectacular job of creating dynamic characters and raising the emotional tension throughout its run, it feels like it all goes to waste in the third act. Hannah Marks, the film’s director, expressed in a Decider interview that the twist ending was always a part of the plan and she incorporated a lot of foreshadowing throughout the movie: “Planting the seeds so they’re subtle, but not too subtle. You don’t want to give it away, but you also don’t want them to not exist.” The crux of the movie seems to be that life is unpredictable. You don’t know what’s going to come, so you might as well enjoy where you are now. “Don’t Make Me Go” definitely sells this point, even if that means leaving a sour taste in your mouth. But like I said before, you’re just going to have to see it for yourself.