Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes a movie synopsis just screams “Lifetime Channel”. As an example: A road trip movie with a single father and his teenage daughter would be a typical beginning. Oh, and the father has been recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. And then, let’s have them track down the mother that abandoned the girl when she was a baby. Those pieces certainly lay the groundwork for a sappy melodrama meant only to induce tears from those who enjoy a good cry after a hard week of work. Fortunately and surprisingly, crisp writing, proficient filmmaking, and a talented cast work together to make this film something entirely different – a heartfelt saga grounded in real life feelings and moments.
Hannah Marks is an actress now making her mark as an up-and-coming director, while the script was written by Vera Herbert (“This is Us”). A perfect example of their grounded approach to these storylines comes near the film’s beginning when Max Park (John Cho, Star Trek franchise as Sulu, COLUMBUS, 2017) reacts to the doctor’s diagnosis of brain tumor and prognosis of one year to live. His movements strike us as real to the moment, rather than staged for effect. Max immediately rules out an option for a highly-risky surgery, choosing instead to bribe his 15-year-old daughter Wally (newcomer Mia Isaac) to take a road trip with him under the auspices of attending his 20-year college reunion. The bribe? Driving lessons.
Wally is a ‘normal’ teen who makes both good and bad decisions, while often getting frustrated at her ‘boring’ and restrictive parent. Max chooses not to tell Wally of his condition or his ultimate goal of reuniting her with her mother, in hopes that she will have family once he’s gone. The drive takes place in Max’s old wood-paneled Jeep Wagoneer, an example of how he has sacrificed to provide for her all these years. Another deeper sacrifice is revealed on the trip, and there are moments of disagreement and aggravation, but also special moments of bonding that can only happen when a parent and teenager communicate.
Since it was filmed in New Zealand during the pandemic, the staged road trip from California through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and ultimately, Florida, does not offer the familiar landmarks along the way that we’d expect. But this story isn’t about cool pit stops or Bourbon Street (although we do get some killer shooting stars), it’s about a father understanding his daughter and that daughter understanding her father.
Excellent supporting work is provided by Kaya Scodelario (a mutual booty call buddy for Max), Josh Thomson (Max’s oldest friend), Otis Dhanji (Wally’s first crush), Stefania LaVie Owen (Wally’s friend), Jemaine Clement (as Max’s ex’s ex), and Jen Van Epps (as Wally’s mom). But make no mistake, this movie crackles thanks to the chemistry between Mr. Cho and Ms. Isaac. We believe in them, and though the ending is a bit creaky, their relationship is fully-formed in reality. When he counsels, “A good man will take you dancing”, we smile along with Wally, knowing this father wants only the best for her. The opening voiceover warns us, “You’re not going to like the way this story ends. But you’re going to like the story.” That turns out to be true, although it doesn’t stop the appreciation for all involved. This journey on the road turns into a journey in life.
Streaming on Prime Video beginning July 15, 2022