Producers: Donald De Line, Leah Holzer and Peter Saraf Director: Hannah Marks Screenplay: Vera Herbert Cast: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Mitchell Hope, Jemaine Clement, Stefania LaVie Owen, Kaya Scodelario, Josh Thompson, Otis Dhanji and Jen Van Epps Distributor: Amazon Studios
It’s rare to encounter a movie in which virtually every scene and line of dialogue feels false, but this one manages the trick, and tops everything off with an ending so misguided it boggles the mind. “Don’t Make Me Go” is a road movie tearjerker that bungles both the melodrama and the periodic attempts at comedy, and even the visuals don’t ring true—though supposedly depicting a cross-country trip from California to Florida, it was filmed in New Zealand, and despite the yeoman efforts of production designer Felicity Abbott and cinematographer Jaron Presant, the result is about as convincing as Kubrick’s England-shot “Lolita” was in that regard. One could forgive Kubrick because he had a great script to deal with, and a marvelous cast; the same certainly can’t be said for the screenplay Vera Herbert has written for director Hannah Marks, although its onetime presence on the famous Black List would seem to suggest otherwise, or for the performances overall.
The exception is John Cho, who brings some welcome nuance to Max Park, a financial consultant and single dad raising his teen daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) in L.A. She’s at that rebellious age feeling stifled by his overprotective attitude. When she lies to him about going on a date with Glenn (Otis Dhanji), a classmate who’s pressuring her to become his girlfriend, he grounds her.
While that domestic drama is going on, Max gets some terrible news from his doctor. He’s been popping aspirin for persistent headaches—always a bad sign in movies—and tests reveal a brain tumor that if left untreated is likely to be fatal within a year; a surgical option has only a small chance of qualified success. Desperate about Wally’s future, he convinces her to accompany him to New Orleans for his college reunion by promising to teach her to drive along the way. His real motive is to introduce her to Sandra (Stefania LaVie Owen), the mother she’s never met, who left him for his classmate Dale (Jemaine Clement) years ago.
Thus begins their journey, divided into contrived episodes as the duo drives eastward in Max’s old car, nicknamed Jerry. (Wally notes that its surname must be Atric. As Foghorn Leghorn might say, that’s a joke, son, and one unfortunately typical of the attempts to be funny.) The periodic episodes in which Max suffers as he permits Wally to drive—badly, of course—are among the movie’s worst. But there’s also a drearily implausible sequence at a casino where Wally learns to gamble, and an even worse one in a small Texas town where Wally sneaks off to a party with a motel worker named Rusty (Mitchell Hope), which send Max off the deep end when she stays away all night—unintentionally, of course.
Despite the hiccups, they reach New Orleans, where Max and Wally hobnob with his old pal Guy (Josh Thomson) and he has a tough conversation with Dale, who tells him that Sandra has moved on to Florida. So Max and Wally continue further east for an uneasy reunion.
Over the course of the trip, of course, the father-daughter bond deepens despite the bumps in the road as Wally learns more about the dreams her dad abandoned to meet his parental responsibilities. (He once wanted to be a singer, for instance, which necessitates a karaoke sequence—another indication that the level of imagination is not high.) Naturally the revelation of his condition will trigger an overwrought melodramatic outburst—more bad driving and repeated declarations of that old standby excuse, “It’s complicated”—that settles into mutual understanding.
But apparently concerned that things have become too pat, Herbert springs a last-act twist that turns things upside down in a thoroughly unsatisfying ways. It makes for a combination of melancholy and uplift that’s unexpected, perhaps, but also contrived, even if she takes pains to emphasize that she’s planted the seeds for it earlier on (“Remember when…?”).
Even here Cho brings a measure of gravity to the material, but Isaac never manages to lift Wally to likability—she’s too often irritably irresponsible, and most of the conversations between father and daughter have an affected quality that reeks more of mediocre television writing than genuine human interaction. No one else in the cast gets much chance to shine; this is basically a two-character piece in which only one is sufficiently well drawn to engage our sympathy. Meanwhile Paul Frank’s editing is choppy and Jessica Rose Weiss’ score nondescript.
“Don’t Make Me Go” is a title that comes to have several meanings before the story wraps up. But none of them justify a trip that in the end comes across as not only manipulative but misdirected.