“You’re not going to like the way this story ends,” Mia Isaac’s Wally Park says in the opening seconds of Don’t Make Me Go. She’s absolutely right about that. After 95 minutes of goodwill and some grounded drama, Vera Herbert’s screenplay takes a sharp left turn. To call it “unexpected” is putting it mildly. It’s one of those endings where you’re compelled to pick up the phone and call somebody in effort to explain what the hell just happened.
Hannah Marks’ latest gets you talking in that respect, at least. It’s a standard dramedy with two or three textured scenes that exceed in displaying respectable pathos. Its conclusion is a bold screenwriting move, but it risks alienating a lot of viewers — the double-edge sword of creative risk-taking.
Let’s get to the plot before we go any further. Don’t Make Me Go revolves around Max Park (John Cho), a single father who learns early into the film that he has a tumor at the base of his brain. It will kill him in about a year’s time, and the surgery only has a 20% survival rate. With no family left, he needs to make sure his teenage daughter Wally is prepared. Without telling her that he’s dying, he takes her on a road trip to his college reunion; the side-quest of the trip is tracking down her estranged mother, who left him for his best friend.
Wally is your typical teenage girl. She’s fixated on a cute but aloof boy in her class, who sometimes texts her back, and she’s hellbent on getting her license. On the trip, Max teaches her how to drive his Wagoneer — the opportunity which ultimately convinced her to go on the trip in the first place. But like all teens, she’s impulsive, at one point sneaking out of a Texas hotel-room to party with a group of twentysomethings. Max was once just as thrill-seeking, but he’s become conservative and hesitant in his personal life. We get the sense he was a lot like Wally in his younger years.
Herbert’s script is your textbook road movie, elevated by a couple very powerful scenes. One of them comes after Wally, in a fit of rage, grabs the keys to Max’s car, drives recklessly through busy streets, and rear-ends another car. She sprints into a field where the two share the movie’s most significant conversation — one that should’ve been had a while ago.
Through the ebbs and flows, Cho and Isaac remain a dynamic pair. If you don’t know how great of an actor John Cho is by now, you haven’t been paying attention. Both him and Isaac make a believable father/daughter pair, particularly when he’s embarrassing and she’s chippy.
Herbert’s screenplay is sometimes too predicated on the desire for big moments. Max not letting Wally know about his condition inevitably leads to a climactic reveal that dials up the melodrama. At the college reunion, Max confronts the man (Jemaine Clement) who stole his wife. Of course, Wally forces her square dad to do karaoke at a dive bar at one point, but thankfully, Cho can sing and he does Iggy Pop justice. These moments are cutesy, but the fact that they’re made palatable is a testament to the strengths of the co-leads.
But that ending remains stuck in my craw. It’s not so much the twist itself, but the way Wally’s narration returns to justify it. It’s as if Herbert herself didn’t have confidence in the move, and used Wally as a vessel to forewarn us in the beginning and then try and give credence to it when it happens. Granted, there are subtle moments of foreshadowing that take place, and it does more-or-less help the movie achieve a worthwhile theme, yet it remains flawed despite its ambition.
One other note: Don’t Make Me Go ends with the Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah song “Lake Shore Drive.” The song is about the popular lakefront highway in Chicago, and it’s inescapable if you’re from the area, as I am. I’m not sure it fits necessarily — not a moment of the movie takes place in Chicago and the song plays while characters are driving a country highway — but it was a treat to hear no less. And after that ending, it was nice to have a smile on my face.
NOTE: Don’t Make Me Go is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Starring: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Kaya Scodelario, Josh Thomson, Otis Dhanji, Jen Van Epps, and Jemaine Clement. Directed by: Hannah Marks.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!