CAST: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Kaya Scodelario, Josh Thomson, Otis Dhanji, Stefania LaVie Owen, Mitchell Hope, Jen Van Epps, Jemaine Clement
RUNNING TIME: 109 mins
BASICALLY…: A terminally ill father (Cho) takes his teenage daughter (Isaac) on a road trip…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
I’ll give some credit to Don’t Make Me Go: at least it warns the viewer at the very beginning that they are absolutely not going to like how this story ends. No, seriously, that’s the first bit of dialogue you hear in the movie, with a narrator saying via voiceover, “You’re not gonna like the way this story ends, but I think you’re going to like the story.” With that, the movie might as well have also followed that up with a good old-fashioned “don’t say we didn’t warn you”, because you’ll be pretty much just there for the ride, and a reasonably gentle if hardly exemplary one at that, until the moment it unmistakably shoots itself in the head.
Starting from the beginning (following one of the more odd opening flashforwards in recent memory, set on a nudist beach for really no reason), we meet single father Max (John Cho) who’s raising his teenage daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) – short for Wallis, by the way, because that’s totally what a parent in twenty-first century society would name their child – alone in California, where his only other real physical contact is with his friend-with-benefits Annie (Kaya Scodelario). However, when Max learns that he has a malignant tumour which gives him about a year left to live, and that surgery to try and remove it would be risky but not impossible, his concerns lie with Wally and how she’ll have nobody to look after her once he’s gone. He then decides to take her on a road trip across the country, under the pretence of attending his college reunion, but is really seeking out Wally’s birth mother who abandoned the two of them shortly after their baby was born. Along the way, they bond, they squabble, they bond again, he teaches her how to drive, she sneaks out to party with some local youth, and basically most other things you’d find on a road trip movie checklist.
As a narrative, it’s hardly original, and you can easily play a game of bingo with the amount of conventions that this movie likes to use throughout, but for the most part it wasn’t difficult to get on board with it, despite the overwhelming familiarity. There are a lot of good scenes between this father and daughter duo, with their acting being overall quite good (John Cho in particular is acting his adorable heart out), and much of their back-and-forth dialogue does work, although at times it certainly feels like writer Vera Herbert is trying a bit too hard to sound smart instead of just making everything sound natural. There are also some cool things that the movie does with on-screen text, like when it’s displaying the names of locations like California, Texas, Louisiana and Florida, which it also has a bit of fun with every now and then, like when it just says “Still Texas” during the montage set in that particular state. Clearly, director Hannah Marks has some kind of vision in mind with this film, and while it’s mostly made up of a bunch of stuff you’ve seen before in other road trip movies like this, Herbert’s script has a pleasant enough quality to it which doesn’t make you hate watching it by any means.
All of that was working fine… and then, the ending happens. As with any movie where the most significant talking point is the ending, I will do my best to try not to ruin too much, but I will start off by saying that you will seriously not be ready for the absolute WTF-ery that it suddenly pulls out from the most foul of crevices. This movie has a “twist” which comes right the hell out of nowhere, making pretty much everything before it completely and utterly pointless, and while they do try and explain it by showing the few previous hints towards it, that still doesn’t make up for how absolutely random and out-of-place it feels. Beyond that, the movie itself treats this turn with exceptional oddness: the visuals are showing stuff that is certainly heart-breaking and would make anyone shed a tear under the right circumstances, but the soundtrack is playing this weird New Age chill music over it, leaving you unsure whether to cry or have a rave with your friends. Then, it goes a few steps further with even more misplaced soundtrack cues, some cloying and rather smug narration, dialogue that gets pretty pretentious and long-winded, and an epilogue that just leaves you with an uncomfortably sour feeling. It’s honestly insane how much this ending completely soils the bed, after spending most of its running time just being a fairly decent and harmless ride: somewhere along the way, writer Herbert apparently decided that her intimate character drama wasn’t ridiculous enough, and concocted something that is the bizarre mix of The Fault in Our Stars and The Book of Henry, with practically no regard for everything that came before it.
To say that it’s a misguided ending to an otherwise okay movie would be putting it mildly, but it also make Don’t Make Me Go one of those fascinatingly baffling experiences where you’re just about on board for about 90% of it, but then all of a sudden it turns into this magnificently manipulative garbage that almost makes you feel as though you’ve been trolled by the filmmakers. Again, though, I want to stress that it’s not as if the entire movie leading up to this horrific “I can’t believe they actually did that” ending was just as bad: it has good performances, it’s shot well, it has a strong enough heart (up to a point), and while it’s far from the freshest road trip movie ever, you’re at least having a decent enough time on this journey. However, as soon as that ending comes crashing head-first into the movie and then driving it straight off a cliff (probably landing on that nudist beach from the beginning), any investment or hope you may have had for it is simply gone, replaced by material that couldn’t harbour more contempt for its audience if it tried.
For most of the movie, I was somewhere in between giving this either a B- or a C+, because while I wasn’t entirely feeling as though I was watching something new, I was still enjoying watching these characters and their dynamic amidst a well-shot journey. However, as soon as I realised the kind of ending that it was actually springing upon the viewer, that grade just sank and sank until it ended up with the one you see below. It leaves me with the only possible recommendation for Don’t Let Me Go, and that’s to certainly go ahead and watch what you think will be a pleasant and harmless drama… but just you wait until things steer off the track in the most confounding way possible. At least it warned us, though.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Don’t Make Me Go is, for the first 90% of it, a pleasant enough if unoriginal road trip movie that’s boosted by some strong performances, but then it completely nosedives with one of the most ill-conceived endings you’ll see all year.