“You’re not going to like the way this story ends,” Wally (Mia Isaac), 15, warns the audience at the start of “Don’t Make Me Go,” a father-daughter drama of startling honesty and humor. Max (John Cho), Wally’s protective single dad, has learned that his headaches aren’t just from the struggle of parenting his restless teenager. A cancer diagnosis gives him one year to live — and instead of coming clean about his condition, Max packs up their wood-paneled Jeep for a road trip with an ulterior motive: To take a surprise detour to introduce Wally to her mother (Jen Van Epps), who ran away with Max’s best friend (Jemaine Clement) when the girl was an infant.
The setup is like a hazard sign reading “Caution: Treacle Ahead.” Yet the director Hannah Marks and the screenwriter Vera Herbert veer from predictability. Life is unpredictable, and the film gambles big to make that point. In one jolting scene, they set an emotional showdown on a nude beach — but neither character finds the gratuitous flaccidity funny. (Thankfully, the film’s editor, Paul Frank, does.)
Cho and Isaac’s stellar performances expose the gulf between familiarity and intimacy. The two flinty characters are more likely to expose their own vulnerable bellies to outsiders than to each other. Herbert’s droll, scrupulously realistic dialogue captures the journey of a parent and a child learning to see each other as flawed people. As Cho’s buttoned-up Max attempts to deliver decades’s worth of advice during the drive, he reveals that he was once a musician before he settled into the role of a risk-averse accountant. Max denies Wally’s accusation that he quashed his passions for her sake, yet the film is wise (and brutal) enough to side with her when she’s right — as she certainly is in her early warning about the movie’s polarizing finale.
Don’t Make Me Go
Rated R for teenage drinking and abundant adult nudity. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. Watch on Amazon Prime Video.