Don’t Make Me Go: John Cho and Mia Isaac’s tearjerker family drama steals your heart

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One of my favourite directors in the world is the Mexican master Alejandro González Iñárritu, who’s made masterpieces like Birdman (2014), Babel (2006) and Amores Perros (2000). In his 2010 film Biutiful, Javier Bardem plays a down-on-luck Barcelona man named Uxbal, who cobbles together a living by procuring work for illegal immigrants and also occasionally functioning as a medium to communicate with the recently deceased. When Uxbal, single dad to young Ana and Mateo (their mother is an alcoholic prostitute who has distanced herself from the family) discovers that he has only a few months to live thanks to prostate cancer, he is forced to re-evaluate all of his priorities in life. It’s a haunting, restless, superlative performance that won Bardem Best Actor at Cannes and also an Academy Award nomination that year.

John Cho, in the recently released Amazon Prime Video movie, Don’t Make Me Go, has delivered a beautiful performance as a terminally ill single dad that reminded me, on one more than one occasion, of Bardem’s Biutiful masterclass. Shot across some utterly gorgeous New Zealand highways, this is actually three films in one: it is a highly efficient tear-jerker, a peppy road movie and a heavy-hitting, philosophical family drama at the same time. Written by Vera Herbert (who deserves all the plaudits in the world for this outstanding script) and directed by Hannah Marks, Don’t Make Me Go follows the fortunes of Max Park (Cho), who takes his rebellious teenaged daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) on a road trip across the country to his high-school reunion.

But Max has an ulterior motive, of course, as these things usually roll — he wishes to reconnect with Wally’s mother Nicole (Jen Van Epps) who walked out on Max and Wally when the latter was just an infant. Worse, she eloped with Max’s friend Dale (Jermaine Clement, a delight as usual). Clearly, Max wants Nicole and Wally to get along because he does not want his daughter to live a parent-less life after he’s gone.

The real beauty of the story, of course, lies in the exceptionally well-written bond between Max and Wally. These are two people who have, in a sense, grown up together, despite being father and daughter. It’s suggested that when Nicole left, Max used fatherhood as a way to stay sane, keep his head clear so to speak. And while this is admirable, it also lends a certain distance in the otherwise intimate father-daughter relationship and eventually leads to Wally acting out and Max grounding her, just prior to the events of the movie. It’s a subtle, complex relationship that evolves through the course of the film, as they and the audience get to know more about their past (and present).
The road trip is such a great way to explore different characters, structurally speaking. Grouchy or introverted characters who might otherwise take a lot of time opening up, might warm to the other person over something as small as a favourite song fortuitously playing on the radio (or via a prized collection of tunes tucked away in the glove compartment); something similar happens in this movie with the great Iggy Pop.

If you haven’t been paying attention over the last few years or so, you might still know John Cho mostly as the guy alongside Kal Penn in those goofy, light-viewing-fun stoner movies (the Harold and Kumar series). But the man has really showed off his range of late and this is in fact his second recent Dad role that has left critics impressed—his performance in Waiting, too, was every bit as good. Mia Isaac is clearly born to accomplish great things in this industry, and her comic chemistry with Cho is off-the-charts brilliant. This is very much a star in the making, as Don’t Make Me Go utilizes to great effect.

Does the knowledge of one’s impending death automatically make you a more responsible, amiable, well-rounded person? Or can it actually unlock a more carefree, lasses-faire mode of living? Which is preferrable for a young-ish parent anyway and how do you know? Don’t Make Me Go asks tough questions like this one throughout its crisply edited 100-odd minutes. More importantly, it does not shy away from answering in each case. This is not a film that revels in dangling loose endings—to the point where briefly, things threaten to become a little too neatly tied up.
No hiccups in the third act, however, as Don’t Make Me Go delivers an emotional, poignant but ultimately uplifting climax that does full justice to the film’s superb set-up and premise. Watch this one with your adolescent kids; even if they don’t feel particularly interested at first, they’ll warm up to the concept, like Wally did.

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