DON’T MAKE ME GO (2022)

July 14, 2022

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

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PAPER SPIDERS (2020)

September 29, 2020

Boston Film Festival (2020, virtual)

 Greetings again from the darkness. There are many reasons that might force a kid to grow up too fast. But when it’s in conjunction with having to care for a parent, we can consider it ill-fated. Director Inon Shampanier co-wrote the script with his wife, Natalie Shampanier, and they adeptly handle a story that, in lesser hands, could be over-wrought and not believable. Instead, they benefit from two excellent performances and deliver an emotional and poignant tale of mother and daughter and mental illness.

Lili Taylor stars as Dawn, mother to straight-A high school senior Melanie, played by Stefania LaVie Owen (“Messiah”). We first meet them while on a rainy day campus tour. Dawn is direct in expressing her wish that Melanie remain close to home for college, while ambitious Melanie wants to attend her late father’s alma mater, USC, on a full academic scholarship. It’s clear mother and daughter have a close relationship, but something is a bit off about Dawn, and we get our answer soon enough.

As the new neighbors are moving in, the truck backs into a tree that Dawn’s husband planted years earlier. Dawn flips out, setting off a chain of events where she is convinced the new neighbor is spying on her, tormenting her, and endangering her. Of course, there is no proof of any of this, and the further Dawn slips, the more difficult it is for Melanie to carry the burden of school, a social life, and a paranoid-delusional mother.

Michael Cyril Creighton plays the school counselor that Melanie ropes into meeting with her mother. The scene is played to an awkward comedic effect, but also exemplifies how mental illness creates a stressful environment for everyone involved. Dawn’s agitated attorney boss is played by David Rasche, and Melanie also sets up a profile for mom on an internet dating site, with less-than-hoped-for results. During all of this, Melanie begins a relationship with a rich, alcoholic classmate named Daniel (Ian Nelson), who understandably isn’t equipped to deal with the situation either. Peyton List plays Melanie’s bestie Lacy, and Max Casella has a couple of scenes as the Private Investigator Dawn hires to surveil the neighbor. All in all, it’s a cluster of real life twisted up by mental illness.

Lili Taylor is excellent, and makes sure she keeps Dawn’s actions in the believable-yet-sufferable mode. But the film really belongs to Stefanie LaVie Owen. This is a staggeringly good performance from the young actress, and she quietly conveys a strength in the face of shock and frustration, and the unfair burden she must carry. The film is a reminder that we don’t get to pick our family, and the responsibilities can feel overwhelming at times. It’s not a horror film, but rather one filled with personal horrors – and the film’s title will make sense by the end.