From its opening moments, Hannah Marks’ “Don’t Make Me Go” tries to put its audience at ease with a surprising promise: disappointment. “You’re not going to like the way this story ends, but I think you’re going to like this story,” young Wally Park (newbie Mia Isaac) tells us via voiceover. That may sound coy for a dramedy that doesn’t hide a heartbreaking truth at its center — a single father (John Cho) discovers he has a terminal disease and decides to take his daughter (Isaac) on a road trip before he, well, goes — but it cleverly announces that perhaps there’s something else beneath the surface of what appears to be a straightforward weepy.
Marks (and Isaac and Cho) will revisit Wally’s declaration and it will prove to be true: “Don’t Make Me Go” is a sweet, charming, and eventually daring dramedy with tons of heart. Also true: Where this road trip movie ends its journey will likely engender some very strong reactions, but Vera Herbert’s smart script (a Black List entry), Marks’ assured direction, and the delight of Cho and Isaac’s well-matched performances sell it. It stings, but we knew that. Wally told us already, but it’s up to the audience to believe her.
Marks’ previous directorial efforts, including “After Everything” and “Mark, Mary & Some Other People,” highlighted the young filmmaker’s interest in chronicling relationships of all stripes with great care and humor. Even when those films didn’t fulfill their potential, Marks’ knack for casting charming stars with great chemistry remained at the forefront. “Don’t Make Me Go” almost instantly presents a credible, loving, complicated bond between Cho and Isaac.
Max (Cho) is a single dad doing his damndest to be there for teenage Wally, even if that means pushing his personal life to the side, including a secretive booty-call relationship with Annie, a much-younger French teacher (Kaya Scodelario), and hiding prickly challenges, like the real meaning behind his persistent headaches.
Wally is dealing with her own stuff, like a confusing sort-of relationship with the inscrutable Glenn (Otis Dhanji) and all the pressures that come with attempting to be passably cool in the high school hellscape. When Max is diagnosed with a bone tumor (as bad as it sounds, and so are the potential treatments), he becomes obsessed with helping her on the journey to find herself, even if he resists explaining exactly why he’s suddenly full of big platitudes and even bigger questions.
That sounds heavy, but Marks strikes a light tone that makes the film’s eventual tear-jerking moments feel even more earned. Screenwriter Herbert’s previous credits, including work on the gone-too-soon series “Awkward” and the just-ended “This Is Us” (which she also produced), provide additional hints as to the film’s bent, which toes the line of comedy and drama with great success. Max’s condition — again, a secret only to Wally — builds to fraught emotional moments. So does the other facet of the road trip, which Max hopes to use to finally introduce Wally to her mother Nicole (Jen Van Epps), who left them both when Wally was a baby.
Yet, Herbert’s script often dovetails into cute subplots that can be needlessly quirky (a bit that sees Wally hitting up a party with a new pal only hammers home other points made with greater grace elsewhere), which detract from its core dramatic draws. Still, it’s joyous to spend more time with these characters, including Cho’s lovable Max, who comes complete with his own mistakes, and Isaac’s well-drawn Wally. This is Isaac’s first leading role, and she will be seen later this summer in yet another feature from one of Hollywood’s most promising young filmmakers: Quinn Shephard’s “Not Okay,” which follows her own Tribeca smash “Blame.” She’s one to watch.
So, how does it all conclude? Wally’s right: We might not like the way it ends, but the road there (and the twists within) is a joy, heartbreaking and heartening in equal measure. The only correct course of action? Watch it again, and marvel how (and why) it actually goes there.
“Don’t Make Me Go” premiered at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Amazon will release the film on Amazon Prime Video Friday, July 15.