Contains spoilers for “Don’t Make Me Go”
“You’re not going to like the way this story ends,” the voiceover of a young teenage girl warns over an introductory black screen. “But I think you’re going to like this story.”
Writer Vera Herbert nails this surprisingly self-aware disclaimer, but she underestimates the tragedy of the collision towards which she sends “Don’t Make Me Go” hurtling. The twist ending of this conventional but sharp father-daughter road trip movie hits like a bus — the delicately tender narrative it builds for 90 minutes dies on impact.
“Don’t Make Me Go” is far from revolutionary, taking on the difficult task of telling a familiar story with a genre which has been known to produce inconsistent results. When single father Max (John Cho) is diagnosed with terminal cancer and given a year to live, he takes teenage daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) on a trip across the country to find her estranged mother, her only other family, while keeping his illness a secret.
Perhaps cliché on paper, the film is successfully compelling for the most part. Max and Wally are immensely sympathetic characters, underscored with a level of authenticity rarely seen in works of fiction. The two make a remarkable father-daughter pairing; Max has obvious flaws despite good intentions, and Wally’s love for her father is evident despite the occasional snarky retort or temporary burst of teenage angst.
They are well-rounded individuals with a nuanced, accurately modern-day relationship — thanks to the natural implementation of texting and believable depiction of Gen-Z culture — who are convincing enough to be plucked from the real world. The dialogue between the two is fantastic; the generational differences are present but not overwhelming, and the corny moments are not as cliche as they are true to life.
Cho and Isaac give masterful performances as the leads, elevating the genuineness of the story. Their effortless yet precise acting not only brings additional clarity and personality to their individual characters, but their on-screen chemistry works so well it’s hard to believe they aren’t actually related. The two butt heads and make amends in ways audiences immediately recognize as relatable, making the film’s exploration of familial love in the face of loss all the more meaningful.
Sadly, it doesn’t last. This sensitive but consistent balance, artfully constructed over the course of the first two acts, abruptly tumbles down. Crumpled as easily as an aluminum can, the weighty body of the story crushes itself within seconds.
After Max’s secret is finally revealed and a devastated but strong-willed Wally convinces him to accept risky yet potentially life-saving surgery, the two reset at a karaoke bar with a renewed appreciation for the here and now. Having learned throughout the trip about the fun and spontaneous life her father left behind when raising her, Wally attempts to rejuvenate some of that youthful fearlessness by signing Max up for a song. Inspired to live the rest of his life with some adventure, Max sings his heart out with Wally and other patrons dance and cheer. It’s fun. It’s emotional. It’s healing.
Vision distorts, sound melds into ringing. Wally collapses. It goes black.
“I said you weren’t going to like the way this story ends,” restates her voiceover.
Cut to Wally’s funeral — a sucker punch square in the audience’s face.
Friends and family, dressed in black, weep around her grave, her terminally ill father among them. They take turns dropping roses onto her casket while the mother she never met looks on from a distance. Wally is made an unnecessary sacrificial lamb, derailing the story and fundamentally uprooting all meaning.
The worst part? Late Wally’s voiceover continues, explaining the missed warning signs of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy scattered throughout the movie and expressing gratitude that she taught her father to lead an exciting life. Kid Francescoli’s “Moon,” a popular upbeat TikTok song, sets the dissonant tone for her speech.
“Dying before my 16th birthday obviously could’ve gone better for me, but do you know how much it would’ve sucked if I had gone out a week earlier?” Wally says to viewers paralyzed by shock.
Heartfelt and meticulous, “Don’t Make Me Go” goes strong for so long — it’s appalling how lost it ends up.