Darkly funny and deeply existential, Mali Elfman’s debut feature Next Exit confronts questions of life and death with a sci-fi practicality that allows the emotional, character-driven story to unfold.
As odd couple Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) travel cross-country in order to take part in a clinical death trial, they confront their own traumas and hang-ups in an attempt to figure out what they are willing to suffer to survive. The film is pragmatic and deliberate, an esoteric hallelujah in the winter, and earnest performances from both Parker and Kohli (familiar faces to Mike Flanagan fans, having co-starred in The Haunting of Bly Manor and The Midnight Club) elevate this half-haunted road trip from a twiddly film musing on the afterlife to something far more comic and relatable.
Next Exit is a film that tells you exactly what it’s going to be and never makes a turn off-road. As Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan) explains from various diegetic screens, the afterlife has become a visible, measurable, scientific fact. As a bit of a bonus, it turns out ghosts are real, and if you go through the right steps at her state-of-the-art facility, you can become one too. This sends society into a bit of a tizzy, as people eager for a different kind of life decide to take their chances on the other side of the veil. Rose and Teddy are two such people, but being rather mild-mannered, they decide to go via the most legitimate route possible, and take a trip to Stevensen’s facility in California.
From their first mismatched misunderstandings at a New York City car rental place (Rose has no money, Teddy a nearly-expired license), the opposites-attract dynamic is laid on thick. Rose’s acerbic no-fucks-left-to-give attitude crashes against Teddy’s softboi people-pleaser vibes, and it’s a testament to both actors that these two both come off as charming despite how easy it could be to get annoyed at how self-obssessed they are.
As this morbidly funny, episodic road trip drama—centered on two deeply damaged people who would literally rather die than go to therapy—continues, the duo make some pit stops. Teddy attempts to confront his walkout father and ends up screaming at Rose in a parking lot as they role-play a scene that should have been worked through a decade ago, and Rose visits her sister’s family in an attempt to purge herself of the guilt she feels for engaging in an affair with her brother-in-law. Needless to say, neither of these attempts towards personal growth work (these are two characters literally on their way to Thelma and Louise themselves off a proverbial cliff), but it’s endearing to watch them at least try to grow even as they head towards an unremarkable, unassuming, perfectly-planned, medical death.
The ending is rather predictable, skirting toward the saccharine. Doubt is a hungry thing, and both Teddy and Rose have to find their own ways of dealing with it—and each other—as they careen toward their future state of passing. The film does land most of its jokes, and watching the leads bounce off each other is the most enjoyable part of it, but Next Exit never quite grapples with its premise in a way that seems satisfying.
Next Exit is available in theaters and for purchase on Apple TV or Google Play.
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