‘Don’t Make Me Go’ Film Review: John Cho Labors to Enliven Listless Tear-Jerker

The story of a terminally ill father’s road trip with his daughter leads to a climax that writes a check this script can’t cash

Dont Make Me Go
Prime Video

This review of “Don’t Make Me Go” was first published June 13, 2022, after its release in theaters.

Your enjoyment of the mostly half-baked road trip drama “Don’t Make Me Go” will probably depend on how you respond to its last-minute plot twist.

John Cho stars in and emotionally grounds this two-star tearjerker from director Hannah Marks (“After Everything”), which follows an insurance salesman who struggles to tell his teenage daughter that he’s got a malignant tumor when they travel cross-country to New Orleans for his college reunion.

Unfortunately, the movie’s unexpected plot twist violently re-directs its treacly uplift narrative for the sake of a Hail Mary conclusion that’s almost ridiculous enough to be campy fun. It’s not though, since the twist in question feels like a last-ditch effort to convince viewers that the movie’s otherwise plain story, credited to Vera Herbert (series writer on “This Is Us”), has more depth than it does.

“I said you weren’t going to like the way this story ends,” cautions moody teen Wally (Mia Isaac) at the end of the movie. She’s right, though — “Don’t Make Me Go” does begin with Wally telling us, through an uncharacteristic use of voiceover narration, that the movie that follows will not have a satisfying ending. It’s easy, then, to assume that Wally’s referring to the seemingly foregone conclusion that awaits her good-guy single dad Max (Cho), who tries to be fair and even-handed with his daughter even after he’s told that he has a fatal tumor at the base of his skull.

The deck’s stacked against Max: a cancer expert who “wrote the book” on the subject tells Cho’s character that he has a 20% chance of surviving surgery, so he spends most of the movie trying to prepare Wally for an uncertain future without a family.

There are a lot of loaded and unexplored assumptions about this scenario that remain so by the end of the movie. Max mostly tries to leave his daughter with some common-sense core values, like living in the moment, and knowing that her time’s too valuable for others to waste. “Others” in this case means boys, particularly self-absorbed romantic prospect Glenn (Otis Dhanji, Netflix’s “The Unlisted”), but also a flirtatious hotel clerk (Mitchell Hope, “Descendants”) that Wally stumbles into on while on the road to the Big Easy.

Wally’s a supporting character throughout, since most of “Don’t Make Me Go” concerns Max’s struggle to get his affairs in order without telling anybody, beyond his emotionally unavailable romantic partner Annie (Kaya Scoledario, “Crawl”), about his cancer diagnosis.

Max teaches his awkward daughter how to merge his old Wagoneer onto a highway and what to do about her feelings for Glenn, who won’t make it “official” and claim Wally as his girlfriend. Max also spends a lot of “Don’t Make Me Go” chasing after his absent ex-wife Nicole (Jen Van Epps), including an awkward but low-key confrontation with Dale (Jemaine Clement), the smarmy other man for whom Nicole left Max.

Herbert’s scenario skims along the surface of Max’s potentially devastating story and never really delves into his emotions. Max’s philosophy of living in the moment can be literally seen and understood at a glance in the movie’s (literally) shallow camerawork and mise en scene. Extreme close-ups, shot with partial, soft focus and in mellow or warm colors — by cinematographer Jaron Presant (“Mr. Corman”) — confirm that, while the present moment may be unclear, it’s the only place where you can bond and honestly connect with your loved ones.

This way of seeing things often smothers and distracts from the ensemble cast’s contributions, especially Cho, whose expressive but restrained performance really sells Max’s borderline stoic weariness. Unfortunately, Cho’s not given much to work with, given Max’s repetitive and frustrating behavior. In many scenes, Max looks like he’s about to blurt out his big secret, but that moment never arrives, leaving Cho to sadly bite his tongue, and let everyone around him unwittingly walk all over him.

Isaac likewise repeats the same fallback gestures as Wally sulks, perks up, and then performatively acts out as nothing appears to go the way that Wally wishes it would. That may sound true enough to life given Wally’s age, but it also leaves the viewer to bob along from one episodic scene and trite life lesson to the next.

Max and Dale’s uncomfortable and inevitable confrontation ultimately proves to be the richest scene in “Don’t Make Me Go.” Both Cho and Clement suggest enough through their uneasy body language to make you think that their characters might have a history beyond their forgettable dialogue and unremarkable behavior. The charming nature of this scene won’t surprise fans of either actor, but still, the real triumph of Max and Dale’s scene doesn’t come from what’s being neatly explained but rather what’s being viscerally expressed.

The stylistically and narratively under-developed nature of “Don’t Make Me Go” makes it hard to stomach the movie’s ruinously anti-climactic finale. Without spoiling anything specific: this ending requires the sort of character development and dramatic momentum that the rest of the movie doesn’t really have. Marks and Herbert pull a major plot development out from under viewers, then negligibly compensate us for our attention, and finally show us the door. Never mind the cast; fans of corny tear-jerkers deserve better.

“Don’t Make Me Go” begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime Video.