All of the charm, heart, and small-scale beauty of Don’t Make Me Go may or may not mean nothing to viewers in the wake of its jarring conclusion.
The first line of Don’t Make Me Go is a voiceover stating that you won’t like how this story ends… If you’re thinking about watching the film, you’d be wise to heed that warning and brace yourself ahead of time. But it also states that you’ll probably like the majority of the story. So does the movie work as a whole? John Cho stars as Max, a single father who discovers he has a terminal illness in the form of a tumor. Given a year to live, he decides to take his daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) on a road trip from California to New Orleans for his college reunion, although he ultimately hopes to reunite her with the mother who left them many years ago.
John Cho anchors all of the emotion with a raw performance that never goes too big but never needs to. You see every ounce of pain in his eyes when he’s allowed to show it, and he balances out his character’s reserved, deceptive nature with an infectiously likeable earnestness. His chemistry with Mia Isaac, who herself gives one of the year’s best supporting performances so far, never for a second has you doubting that these two are father and daughter. The writing between them is about as well-balanced as it could be for such a relationship. They naturally have a lot of the typical arguments you’d expect them to have, but they have just as many moments of tender bonding and playful banter that many other stories may have used a bit more sparingly. The negativity of familial fighting sometimes overpowers the heart and soul of stories like this, but Don’t Make Me Go refreshingly steers clear of that pitfall.
This is why Don’t Make Me Go manages to get away with its generally familiar beats. The father-daughter dynamics and lessons, Wally’s coming-of-age arc, the questions of how to make the most out of life in the wake of a terminal condition, and the strain of divorce on a child, are all factors that have been done better in at least a few other films, but they combine together nicely and never feel forced or shoehorned in. Don’t Make Me Go mostly only uses the enjoyable aspects of every trope it contains, making it hard to not get invested in the ride. There’s a point where I was very concerned that the biggest emotional confrontation would be handled in a really contrived way, as it was setting itself up to very easily do so. But it resolves in a much more satisfying and honest manner … even if the emotional weight doesn’t have as much time to sizzle as it needs.
Don’t Make Me Go’s main issue – at least, for a majority of its run time – is that for all its serious topics and the dour news that kicks the plot into gear, the overall tone is a little too jovial. Don’t get me wrong, lighthearted scenes aren’t unwelcome by any means. But there are a few instances where a heavy dramatic moment comes along, but shortly thereafter the interactions and dialogue are as upbeat as if that dramatic moment never happened. There were even multiple times when I had to remind myself that Max has a tumor. The film doesn’t need to be depressing from start to finish; it just could have transitioned more smoothly between the lighter and darker scenes, especially Max’s. It also doesn’t handle its most serious scenes with the most grace. When Max finally reveals his diagnosis to Wally, what should be a gut-wrenching moment is undercut by setting it to a high-energy driving sequence with New Order’s “Blue Monday” playing over it … and if I’m complaining about “Blue Monday” in any capacity, something is definitely wrong.
But I don’t want to beat around the bush any longer. Without a doubt, the number one thing that everyone who watches this movie will associate with it is the ending. The final ten minutes of Don’t Make Me Go are either going to make or break the entire film for almost every viewer, as they go in a very sudden, very shocking turn that completely changes how you view the entirety of what came before and the whole point of the movie. I personally don’t dislike the idea of this turn. In concept, it plays well into the unpredictability of life in a way that you could wring a lot of emotion out of. But in execution, it doesn’t work and ultimately undercuts the film, because the script and overall direction of Don’t Make Me Go don’t feel like they were put together with this ending in mind. Everything doesn’t click together when you look back in hindsight, while at the same time the emotions and arcs that were being built up no longer work.
I’m sure that pulling off this specific twist would be difficult no matter what. Twists in general must be hard to get right. You run the risk of either making them so sudden and out of place in the story that they feel unwarranted, or so easy to predict that they don’t have the desired impact. The former trap is sadly what Don’t Make Me Go falls into. But even with that issue aside, the worst aspect of all is how rushed and tone-deaf the actual reveal is. The music played is unfitting, there’s no time at all to process what’s happening before the credits roll, and the ending narration is really jarringly silly because of who’s speaking and what they’re saying. It all just makes things that much harder to swallow, for the wrong reasons. I appreciate Don’t Make Me Go for at the very least taking such a big risk. Director Hannah Marks and writer Vera Herbert must have known that they were going to put a lot of people off with this decision, and I don’t want to actively discourage trying to do something so shockingly subversive in an otherwise straightforward, traditional movie. The film just needed a more thorough reworking in order to make the landing stick.
As long as you know going in that this potentially film-killing ending is waiting to strike, I think that Don’t Make Me Go is potentially worth a watch. The charm of the performances, believable father-daughter relationship, great soundtrack, and eye-pleasing sights of Southern roads and starry skies are all kept intact, and the story up until the ending did have me thinking about these characters’ different approaches to life and the choices I myself have made in my own. Even though the whole package doesn’t work, there are still things within it to take away. I very, very cautiously recommend this movie only if you’re okay with your enjoyment being solely in the moment and not when looking back on it upon completion. For some, that will be enough. For others, the ending will completely overshadow any previous positive feelings. It all comes down to the viewer, so much like our father-daughter duo as they gamble in a Texas casino, weigh your odds and decide whether it’s worth the risk.
Don’t Make Me Go had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and will be released globally on Prime Video July 15, 2022.
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