‘Don’t Make Me Go’ Review: Heartfelt Road-Trip Drama Loses Its Way

Not even an inspired John Cho can save the film from its misjudged ending.

Don't Make Me Go
Courtesy of Tribeca Festival

“You’re not gonna like the way this story ends,” announces the teenage narrator of “Don’t Make Me Go” as the film opens, “but I think you’re gonna like the story.” The first half of that sentence is so accurate it complicates the second. The movie’s ending is misguided to the point of being perplexing rather than upsetting, recasting everything that came before it in a less favorable light. That’s a shame, as this father-daughter drama starring John Cho has more than its fair share of touching moments before hitting the roadblock that is its questionable third act.

Directed by Hannah Marks and written by Vera Herbert, “Don’t Make Me Go” is in some ways an inversion of the “unexpected kid” genre in which the protagonist is introduced to the child they didn’t know they had. The difference is that here, circumstances of the life-and-death variety prompt a single father named Max (Cho) to introduce his teenage daughter Wally (Mia Isaac, who also narrates) to the mother she’s never met. That requires a road trip from California to Florida, which Wally — who’s unaware of her dad’s true intentions and thinks they’re en route to his college reunion in New Orleans — only agrees to because her old man finally agrees to give her driving lessons along the way.

It’s been nearly two decades since Cho first went to White Castle, and viewers of a certain age will probably never not find it weird to watch him play an overprotective father rather than a stoner whose parents are almost certainly unaware of his drug-induced misadventures. That doesn’t make him any less persuasive in the role. Cho has comfortably settled into his second act, with standout roles in “Searching” and “Columbus” making a case for him as a low-key leading man who can reliably anchor character-driven projects like this one. He has a touch of an everyman vibe to him, and yet he commands the screen every time he’s on it. It’s a rare asset, and one he utilizes to the fullest.

So it’s apropos that Max is the kind of dad you always root for in these movies: not perfect — far from it, in fact — but trying his best and always well intentioned. Cho and Isaac two have an easy chemistry, and their issues — he doesn’t like the boy she’s dating, and she’s annoyed that he won’t get out of his own way and pursue his dreams — feel authentic if also familiar. And so, as it motors along, “Don’t Make Me Go” builds a narrative momentum befitting the genre it’s ever so slightly tweaking.

From “Ikiru” to “Cries & Whispers,” “The Bucket List” to “The Fault in Our Stars,” awareness of one’s mortality has inspired many a protagonist to set things right and realize grand truths about themselves and the world around them before that inevitable fade to black. “Don’t Make Me Go” is admirably understated in the way it continues that tradition, but very nearly squanders all the goodwill it inspires with a third-act twist that feels designed to subvert expectations for the sake of subverting expectations. In attempting to tug heartstrings, the film ultimately raises eyebrows instead.

‘Don’t Make Me Go’ Review: Heartfelt Road-Trip Drama Loses Its Way

Reviewed online, June 13, 2022. In Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Narrative). Running time: 110 MIN.

  • Production: An Amazon Studios release and presentation of a Big Beach, De Line Pictures production. Producers: Donald De Line, Leah Holzer, Peter Saraf.
  • Crew: Director: Hannah Marks. Writer: Vera Herbert. Camera: Jaron Presant. Editor: Paul Frank.
  • With: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Mitchell Hope, Jemaine Clement, Stefania LaVie Owen, Kaya Scodelario.