Cho drives quippy — if aimless — dad-daughter road trip dramedy
A father-daughter road trip that navigates between comedy and drama, “Don’t Make Me Go” has a lot of the right components. A likable cast. A story grounded in realism and human-scaled stakes. It’s not an unpleasant film, by any means. But it’s not one that makes a case for itself, either.
John Cho plays a single father named Max. He finds out he has a tumor near his brain that’s fatal if left untreated. His chances aren’t good even if he has the surgery to remove it. Not ready to break the news to his 15-year-old daughter, Wally, played by Mia Isaac, he decides to take her on a cross-country road trip instead.
She thinks she’s being dragged to his college reunion — don’t make me go, comes the heaving sigh of an exasperated teen — but his secret plan is to track down his long estranged ex-wife, who is Wally’s mother.
If he dies, Max has no other family or friends who might be potential guardians to Wally, so the trip obviously has a larger purpose; a parent who left when their only child was just a baby might not be an ideal candidate for Max and Wally’s dilemma.
But it’s the best idea Max can come up with. So they hit the road in search of Mama.
It’s a formula built for all kinds of bonding moments, but that’s not really what transpires. Max and Wally have an easygoing comfort level but are quick to get on each other’s nerves. All of it falls within the bounds of a fairly average, mostly functional parent-child relationship, which neither deepens nor changes over the course of the film. Sometimes their quippiness sits awkwardly within the naturalistic drama of it all.
Their cross-country trek is punctuated by various stops along the way. The emotional beats aren’t overworked, but there’s a distinct aimlessness here as well, and too often “Don’t Make Me
Go” (directed by Hannah Marks from a script by
Vera Herbert) feels like it’s sleepwalking through its own story.
The performances are honest and true and that gives things a considerable boost. Isaac was 16 when she made the movie (she’s 18 now) and this kind of fidelity in casting makes a difference. She’s believably a high school age kid who is willful and mildly rebellious, but also sweet and sarcastic and funny. In other words: a teenager.
Cho has always been an actor who holds the screen, and here he’s playing a guy who intentionally stripped out all his inconvenient interests long ago in favor of setting up a stable, if solitary, life for himself and Wally. So sure, maybe he has lived a somewhat bland existence. But now he’s really worried about Wally’s future without him. His angst about his mortality — and the path left untaken — is left more opaque.
For most of the film, Wally is in the dark about all of it. That’s the primary tension — what happens when she finds out? — but the resolution has a twist. And it’s one that managed to put a lump in my throat, though it didn’t feel especially well-earned.
Maybe it’s fitting that the 1971 song “Lake Shore Drive” by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah plays over the end credits. Few songs have lyrics so explicitly about Chicago, and yet Max and Wally’s car trip never comes within 50 miles of Illinois, let alone the city itself, which makes the song’s inclusion a complete non sequitur.
Like so many moments in the movie itself, it feels like a placeholder for an idea to come later.
Where to watch: