Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Hannah Marks
Writer: Vera Herbert
Cast: John Cho, Mia Isaac, Kaya Scodelario, Otis Dhanji, Josh Thomson
By Tom Moore
Director Hannah Marks’ third film, “Don’t Let Me Go”(2022), instantly grabs your heart with its incredibly likeable father/daughter bond and genuine character arcs, but unfortunately falls apart in its final act due to ill-conceived story turns and execution.
The film follows single dad Max (John Cho) as he takes his daughter Wally (Mia Isaac) on a road trip to see her estranged mother after he learns that he has a malignant tumor. Marks and writer Vera Herbert do a great job making Max and Wally instantly relatable and engaging through their own personalities and personal lives. At first, it’s easy to see Wally’s modern teenage dating issues as typical with how she struggles to define her relationship with a boy named Glenn (Otis Dhanji). However, the film’s more realistic lens on her story allows for some deeper, richer emotions in her personal perspective to develop. Max’s story actually has some similar threads as he goes through the same type of struggles in defining his life and relationship with a woman named Annie (Kaya Scodelario) on top of the bad news of him possibly only having about a year left unless he goes through an incredibly risky surgery.
When they come together, Max and Wally are simply a blast and drive the film’s great balance of comedy and heartache. Cho and Isaac are perfect casting at its finest and help elevate the film’s funniness that gets you laughing right from the start. “Don’t Let Me Go” is the exact kind of film that Cho absolutely thrives in as he nails this wholesome comedy style that totally makes him a loveable dad. The opening is an absolutely hilarious dad blunder that gets you in the right mood and Cho is just everything you’d want him to be in this film. Isaac has one of the strongest breakout performances of the year as Wally matching Cho’s comedic style and showcasing the right kind of vulnerability to make Wally’s story moments feel more impactful.
One of the big things that stands out about their dynamic is how it’s not defined by conflict. In most other movies, their arc would start them as divided and then bring them together as they bond on the trip. However, it’s clear from the start that they have a good relationship, and the film uses that to make these subtle emotional beats. While most of their time together is generally good vibes, maybe except when Wally is driving, there’s always this underlying truth that isn’t being revealed as Max doesn’t talk about his health issues with Wally. This hidden truth adds great emotional layers to the film and makes you more engaged when Max and Wally talk about Wally’s future. Cho elevates the emotion even more with his performance as you can always see the pain and sadness in Max when Wally talks about things she’ll do down the line knowing that he won’t be there.
“Don’t Make Me Go” is truly a sweet experience that melts your heart with its own genuine love, but unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up through its last act. Personally, the film prolongs Max talking about the tumor for too long. With him not talking about it, it often doesn’t allow other characters close to him to leave more of an impact and creates problems for the sake of creating problems. The film does try to define why he’s so secretive about it tying it to his need to keep things intact without thinking about other people’s right to know, especially Wally, and it does even bring up a great point about the surgery that nicely changes the perspective of the situation. However, it’s not enough to make the third act not feel like forced conflict and it especially doesn’t recover from the big twist that comes.
“Don’t Make Me Go” features one of the most “out of nowhere” and “just why” twists I’ve ever seen as it attempts to break your heart in a way that really doesn’t need to happen. The film is honestly so unsure of the twist it goes out of its way back through the film to explain it and even uses the phrase “you won’t like how this story ends” to try to soften the blow. It’s super unsatisfying and is a moment where Mark’s direction and storytelling dips into generic YA novel territory. There’s narration that’s overused and comes with a snarky attitude that really doesn’t belong and leaves a sour taste in your mouth.
Although “Don’t Make Me Go’s” faulty final act will leave viewers on a sour note and nearly eclipses the experience, the film’s story, Marks’ direction, and Cho and Isaac’s performances leave a stronger lasting impression that will make you remember the good times more than the bad.