John Cho is one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood. In a career that has spanned the likes of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle and Star Trek (2009), he has proven he’s got the chops to fit in just about any project. This, of course, was highlighted in the 2016 viral social media hashtag campaign #StarringJohnCho which advocated for more Asian-American representation in films and media. Comedies, legendary franchises, big-budget Manga adaptations, contained thrillers, you name it Cho can do it. We shouldn’t be surprised that he shines in his next project, the deeply emotional family dramedy Don’t Make Me Go, a story that is absolutely made for our time.
No, Don’t Make Me Go, isn’t about the COVID-19 pandemic, but it does explore the existential territory of life and mortality that has been on the forefront of our minds as we continue into this global crisis. How much control do we have in our lives? Would you be prepared if catastrophe struck your family right now? Have you been living up to your passions, desires, and callings? This makes Don’t Make Me Go a timely story, but the decision not to include COVID makes it a timeless one.
Cho plays Max, a single father who, early in the film, receives a fatal health diagnosis. To ensure he has the chance to make a few more lasting memories with his daughter and begin to get his affairs in order, the two begin a journey for Max’s daughter, Wally, to meet her mother. This is a great time to sing the praises of newcomer Mia Isaac who plays Wally and steals most of the movie from the veteran Cho.
Here the classic movie trope of the road trip is used to perfection to explore the film’s larger questions about life. Max and Wally have very different goals for the trip and often exchange control of the reigns. There are lots of hiccups, twists, and turns as they go. These are characters, like all of us in the time of the Great Resignation, wondering where they are going, who’s driving, and will they ever really get there? However, as the story plays out, you just know that this moment in Max and Wally’s lives will be a turning point.
If you have reached such a turning point in your own life, as many of us have during the pandemic, you know that they usually only follow seasons of great trial and frustration. That is true of this story. Not much goes as planned on this road trip. Really, it’s the next installment in a lineage including A Goofy Movie and Little Miss Sunshine. Ultimately, Don’t Make Me Go is about what we do when things just don’t work out. How do we respond when we catch a terrible draw. Will we keep living and pursuing our passions or curl up like a potato bug and just survive?
Sometimes there actually is a logic to loss. In a fallen world, a world that has fallen from God’s original creation, a world that was supposed to be free of death, decay, and shame but is now shaken by them, loss is inevitable. It is interesting, then, that this story doesn’t spend the bulk of its runtime wondering why death is coming, but rather how will this family respond to the reality of loss. It is easy to spend our lives waiting for the other shoe to drop, but that time and energy could be spent with the people you love doing the things that give you life.
Don’t Make Me Go is just as interested in living as it is in dying. It might not be the most comforting movie. Some of the scenes, like those involving an accidental trip to a nude beach, are designed specifically to find the comedy in being uncomfortable. But there can be comfort in accepting what you cannot change, recognizing the fallen state of the world, finding gratitude in the blessings of God, and living somewhat in spite of loss. It can be the hardest thing in the world to keep going, but, with the right people and the right inspiration, it is possible.
Don’t Make Me Go is Rated Rand will be available on Amazon Prime on July 15th.
For many of us summer means a change of pace, and a chance to relax and try new things. Our regular shows have wrapped for the season, or we’ve blown through our favorite re-watches for the 8th time, and we need something new to watch on those rainy days or when the temperatures get too hot for outdoor activities. Here are some TV shows currently available on streaming services that you might not have heard of but could find interesting. Nearly all of them are breaking new ground in representation and storytelling, so they are great additions to your current go-to’s. There’s something for everyone on this list!
Rutherford Falls – Peacock
This is a delightful and incisive comedy from Ed Helms and Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Rec) about a historic town in NY state navigating its colonial and Native history. Not only is this a witty comedy, but it features the largest Native writers room in comedy history, and a Native showrunner and creator, Sierra Teller Ornelas. It’s funny, warm, and thought-provoking!
Content rating: PG for occasional mild sexual innuendo
High On the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America – Netflix
Part cooking show, part African American historical legacy, this show is unique and powerful. Only 4 episodes, chef and food writer Stephen Satterfield explores the culinary roots of Black cooking from Africa to Texas. Part of what makes this show so special is the space it creates for Black people to talk to each other about legacy and identity and belonging. Each episode is full of historical excavation, pride, tenderness and mutuality. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, don’t miss it.
Home Before Dark – Apple+
Do you ever wish all these crime dramas could be mixed with precocious little girl energy? I didn’t know that’s what I needed until I started watching this show. Inspired by a real 9 year-old investigative journalist named Hilde Lysiak, the show creates a wonderful young lead similar to Hilde but with a fictional town and cold case that she has to solve. It’s a wholesome family drama about processing trauma and grief with a local mystery intertwined.
Content rating: G, the first episode contains verbal descriptions of the trans-Atlantic slave trade that will be painful for some
Content rating: PG there is no violence or descriptions of abuse, but the subject matter of a child abduction may be intense for young viewers
Hacks – HBO Max
If you don’t already love Jean Smart, you will after watching this show. Hacks is a thought-provoking comedy about what it means to be a female comedienne and what previous generations had to navigate to pave the way. This first season is still finding its way with working out a few of the characters, but it’s worth a watch!
Content rating: PG-13 for some sexual conversations, no nudity or sex depicted
The Underground Railroad – Amazon Prime
Director Barry Jenkins’ labor of love, this show is based on the novel of the same name. The novel explores the idea of what it would have been like if the underground railroad was a literal railroad underground. It is beautifully filmed and acted, with an intense but powerful portrayal of Black dignity in the face of oppression (a particular strength of Jenkins’ filmmaking). You will likely need to pace yourself and some may want to refrain from watching all together, but if you can handle the intensity of the subject matter, you’ll find a rich and compelling narrative.
Content rating: R for explicit racial violence
Girls5eva – Peacock
This one goes out to all the elder millennials who came up on girl groups and boy bands! Girls5eva is a hilarious and warm comedy about a washed-up girl group from the 2000s who are trying to reconnect with each other and make a comeback. The cast is fantastic, featuring Sarah Bareilles, Renee Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton), Busy Philipps, and other Broadway stars Paula Pell and Ashley Park. These women are so funny and the writing is smart and a snarky revisiting of pop culture in that era.
Content rating: PG for mild sexual innuendo
Shadow and Bone – Netflix
Sometimes you want an elaborate fantasy show but aren’t sure if it’s worth getting to know the lore and characters if the writing will just end up being bad. Shadow and Boneis a fun escape that’s worth the investment. The world is well-crafted, the characters are endearing, the special effects are good, the cast is talented and diverse, the season is well-paced, and we know we’re getting a season 2!
Content rating: PG-13 for some implied sexuality and mild violence. Likely appropriate for teenagers but check the parent’s guide first.
WandaVision – Disney+
A lot of people have been talking about this year’s spate of Marvel TV shows, and for good reason. But a lot of you have told me that you stopped watching WandaVision after the first couple episodes, so this is my apologetic for why you should revisit it. The format of the first several episodes is that of the classic TV sitcom, starting with the style of I Love Lucy and ending with the style of Modern Family. Some found this format confusing and boring, but what you need to know is that WandaVision is fundamentally a show about grief. It is about the desire to disassociate from a painful reality and immerse oneself in a fun and entertaining distraction. About the longing to return to one’s happiest moments shared with your loved one and try to stay there rather than move forward. The style of the first 7 episodes is very purposefully painting a picture of what Wanda is experiencing internally after the trauma of losing Vision, and how she is making sense of it. Don’t expect huge character reveals, there will be no appearances from Dr. Strange or Mephisto, this is a contained and powerful exploration of the grieving process. It features incredible performances from Olson, Bettany, and Hahn, and one of my new favorite quotes: “What is grief if not love persevering?” Give it another watch!
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but we watched over 220 movies this year. Most of them were older ones I’d never seen because it was a weird year for new releases. A lot of titles got pushed back to 2021, some have been on streaming for months but were just small features without much hype, some are available on VOD but cost $19.99 to rent which feels hefty. So nearly all of my top ten picks are smaller movies that you may or may not have heard of yet, because that’s what came out in 2020.
It was an also a phenomenal year for documentaries! I have a theory that the rise of reality television transformed documentary filmmaking. When I was a kid, docs were seen as pretentious snooze-fests about the migratory patterns of bees and whatnot. Things that most people could not access or find interesting. But the art form has developed by leaps and bounds, encompassing so many more topics and having far more intricate structures. No longer are they something you have to drag yourself through just so you can say you are informed, now they are engrossing and emotional and complex. So my list is heavier on documentaries than usual, but give them a chance. They might be some of the most moving content you’ll see this year.
10. Miss Juneteenth – I heard a lot about this movie during the summer when our country was talking about the holiday of Juneteenth, but we weren’t able to see it until December. This story is a much-needed makeover of the pageant genre. It follows some traditional tropes of a mother and daughter story where the mom won the pageant in the past and is pressuring her daughter to participate and win like she did. But the themes of Miss Juneteenth are far deeper and more nuanced. It is also a story about Black ownership and what it looks like to carve out something for yourself against the odds. It’s about the struggles and pressures that Black women face in trying to hold themselves and the people around them together. And it’s about generational failures and hopes and how we create and keep a legacy alive. The making of the film reflects these very themes with writer/director Channing Godfrey Peoples who was given opportunities by Ava DuVernay. DuVernay (Selma, When They See Us) created a wonderful show called Queen Sugar and used that platform to give other women entrances into the film/TV industry. Many new and talented creators received a leg-up from directing and writing with DuVernay and what she carved out for herself and others. Miss Juneteenth is the product of what can happen when Women of Color are given the opportunities and support they deserve. Available to rent on demand.
9. Feels Good Man – Everything about this documentary was a mystery to me before watching. In the early 2000s cartoonist/artist Matt Furie created a chill character named Pepe the Frog. Pepe lived a normal existence on MySpace for a while, then became a huge meme on the blogging site 4Chan. Still pretty harmless. Then Pepe morphed into a major symbol for the Alt-right and Trumpism and was registered as an official hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. How did that happen?? The doc unpacks this progression with terrific detail and insight, exploring online culture and how and why it intersected with Trumpism. It also follows Matt and the impact it had on him personally and professionally, and how Pepe finally reclaimed his froggy identity. Even if you aren’t very interested in politics, this is a fascinating look at how things take on a life of their own online and how the internet shapes our lived reality. Available to rent for a small fee on demand.
8. All In: The Fight for Democracy – Like many of us, I was obsessed with the election this year. There were a couple of particularly good documentaries that unpacked big themes and factors of our political moment. This doc follows Stacy Abrams’ activism in the fall-out of the voter suppression that took place surrounding the gubernatorial race in Georgia in 2018. It also provides a succinct and helpful overview of the general history of voter suppression in America, specifically of Black and Brown voters. Available on Prime.
7. Mangrove – I really liked The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) this year and for a while it was on my top ten list. Then I saw Mangrove. Part of Steve McQueen’s film anthology on Prime, Small Axe, each tells a story about the context of his childhood which was West Indian-British communities in London in the 1970s-1980s. A very unique and personal project, they’re all free-standing stories, the only thing that connects them is the general context. Mangrove follows a true-life courtroom drama surrounding Black-British protestors who are being unjustly prosecuted over their protest. This story eloquently unpacks what it feels like to know the system is against you and to feel helpless rage in the face of it. Letitia Wright turns in an incredibly good lead performance that I believe should garner her a Best Actress nomination and shows her range outside of Marvel. (Pro tip: Turn on the English subtitles as you watch. The actors are speaking English but with thick accents and use of slang that may be hard to follow for some viewers.)
6. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom – I was nervous to watch this because Viola Davis’s makeup is so extreme and the pressure of it being Chadwick Boseman’s final performance made me wonder if it could live up to all our high hopes. I need not have worried. Deftly steered by Tony award-winning Broadway director George C. Wolfe the film feels like a play but still comes alive in an authentic way on screen. Based on the play by August Wilson (author of Fences), the story follows real-life Blues singer Ma Rainey as she records a few hits, including “Black Bottom.” The setting is a Chicago recording studio where Ma and her all-Black band try to work with each other and navigate the relationship between them and the all-White management. It is a powerful exploration of the power dynamics involved in creating Black art, and the impact it has on Black artists when those power dynamics are heavily unequal. With both Davis and Boseman turning in wonderful performances, I hope this will get significant awards attention. Available to stream on Netflix.
5. Dick Johnson is Dead – No movie has affected me so emotionally this year as this documentary. On the surface it’s a quirky doc made by a daughter whose father is dying and the family is trying to get used to the idea of him being gone by filming dramatic and humorous staged deaths. But more broadly it’s about memory and loss and how to say goodbye. It is also just the most heartbreakingly beautiful portrait of a loving and emotionally present father who would do anything for the daughter he loves. If you have lost someone close to you then be warned that this could be extremely emotional to watch. But emotions aren’t always bad. Available on Netflix.
4. Driveways – We almost missed this one, a very indie and small but beautiful film about a mother and her socially anxious 9-year-old son who come to clean out her older sister’s home after she dies. The sister had lived next door to an elderly man living alone after his wife died, played with a kind authenticity by Brian Dennehy in his final performance before his death this year. The synopsis sounds heavy and perhaps boring, but the film has a wonderfully gentle and sweet quality that winsomely draws you in. And the 9-year-old, played heartrendingly by newcomer Lucas Jaye will have you rooting for him every step of the way. Available on demand for a small rental fee.
3. Minari – Maybe it’s because we now live 20 minutes from the border of Arkansas, but this film about a Korean immigrant family living in rural Arkansas in the 1980s was resonant. A quiet and empathic look at family dynamics and the costs of chasing a dream. Ivan wrote more about the film and the themes of manhood and fatherhood. Unfortunately, it’s not slated for wide release until February (we saw it at the Indie Memphis Film Festival at the drive-in) so keep an eye out for it in early 2021.
2. The Assistant – This is one that unfortunately got lost for most people during the summer. Streaming on Hulu and led by the wonderful Julia Garner, this is a subtle story of being a young woman trying to work in an exploitative environment. There are plenty of stories about women being harassed in the workplace, but this was the first I’ve seen about the female bystanders who are co-opted into the oppression by their presence in the organization, and who must wrestle with their role in changing or engaging in the system. Not all abuse is direct, some happens by leveraging and pressuring you to maintain “how things are.” Garner perfectly captures confusion, powerlessness, anger, and tense observation. This is a thorough exploration of the ripple effects of harassment and exploitation without needing to depict the abuse itself.
1.The Sound of Metal – Available on Prime, this is a story of a musician who suddenly loses his hearing. Featuring an Oscar-worthy performance by Riz Ahmed, this movie immerses you in what this experience would be like. The sound design is incredibly creative without being dominant and weaves between the world of sound and hearing loss. This story also does a wonderful job of elevating and honoring the deaf community. It depicts the struggle and identity crisis that would accompany such an abrupt loss but does so in a way that highlights the dignity and autonomy of those who are deaf. It is emotional, powerful, compassionate, and informed.
Honorable Mention Documentaries
Athlete A – An incredibly important and well-told doc about USA Gymnastics and the abuses of Larry Nassar. This is essential viewing for anyone who has or works with kids. It is survivor-focused and uncovers his abuse without retraumatizing the viewers. You will be horrified by the system that protected him but inspired by the many women who stood against him to tell the truth together. Available on Netflix.
John Lewis: Good Trouble – We lost some greats this year, and John Lewis tops that list. He was a remarkable man who started out as a teenager but took every opportunity in front of him to advocate for justice and act in the hope that things could be better than they were. He became a giant through consistent acts of faith and bravery and was constantly motivated by his belief in God and the support of the community of faith. This will inspire you with everything that he accomplished and challenge you to see where you can follow his example. Now available on HBOMax.
The Painter and the Thief – A crazy and powerful story about the transforming power of compassion and love and choosing to see someone at their best even when they are at their worst. It has a very poignant and raw exploration of addiction that’s ultimately hopeful but emotional so be aware. See Ivan’s list for more info, available to stream on Hulu.
Boy’s State – At times scary and at times inspiring, this doc follows teenage boys in Texas as they create their own form of government. Ivan wrote about this here, and I also recommend it. Available on Apple+