Melancholic explorations of our brand, mortal existence are nothing new. Yet, it is growing increasing evident that the global crisis we were thrust into two years ago has cast a long, dark shadow over the niche genre that seeks to make sense of life, and death, and everything in-between. Mali Elfman‘s directorial debut Next Exitsets out on a journey towards death, but along the way, it is filled to the brim with life and questioning about what it is to really live. What’s fascinating is that Elfman penned the script over a ten-year period, yet it so perfectly encapsulates the here-and-now.
In this too-familiar world, Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan) has discovered proof of a ghostly afterlife, and with that knowledge as the base of her scientific study, she founds an organization called Life Beyond which allows people to commit suicide to slip into that guaranteed afterlife. The people seeking this alternative aren’t the sick and dying looking for release from their physical pain, it’s young people and people from many walks of life who are simply tired of living. Including two ready-to-die strangers who have an unexpected meet-cute at the rental car place a week before they’re deadlined to die.
Rose (Katie Parker) is all thorns when she sets out on the cross-country journey with the charming Teddy (Rahul Kohli). Kohli is a delight to watch as Teddy tries, in vain, to wear down Rose. For a man with a death date looming over his head, he’s effusive and funny and very much alive. He stands in stark contrast with Rose who has reached the end of her teether—she’s haunted by a ghostly figure that’s always looming in the rearview mirror or just out of frame, taunting her and driving her towards the brink. Kohli and Parker are magnificent scene partners; expertly playing off each other, but through lines of dialogue and physical shifts in stance and expression.
Through their unusual road trip across the country, Rose and Teddy come face-to-face with real suffering and heartache, grapple with their own emotional baggage, and try to make sense of what becomes of loneliness and lives half-lived when we’re gone. Beneath Teddy’s wit and Rose’s stony expression gives way to two broken people that are somehow similarly broken. Along the way, they even make a pitstop to visit Rose’s sister Heather, who is played by Kohli’s ever-charming former iZombie co-star Rose McIver. while Next Exit is a very close-quarters story centered around Rose and Teddy, there is a larger story that exists along the periphery, and both characters really get to do some soul-searching about the people in their lives that hurt them and that they hurt.
For her directorial debut, Elfman proves that she has a keen understanding of what makes films connect with their audience. She employs clever, dynamic staging that draws you in as if you’re being made privy to intimate moments. She also utilizes inventive imagery that drives home a lot of the symbolism in the essence of the film—particularly with the notion of cyclical thinking showcased through wheels, round mirrors, and other circular visual devices. Whether all of these were intentional designs or a beautiful happenstance, they naturally knit together the beginning and the end of the film.
Elfman’s approach to the story as both the writer and the director adds layers of nuance to the film that, perhaps with a different combination of creatives, wouldn’t have driven home equal amounts of heartbreaking and heartwarming moments. For as much as Next Exit is toying with the ideas of death and the afterlife, it is more a deeper character study, stripping these characters down to the bare bones and making its audience look inward in return.
while Next Exit is a spectacular piece of blended genre storytelling, it isn’t perfect. The film is too heavily on the exposition delivered by Dr. Steveston through Life Beyond videos, press conferences, and news reports. It works well enough, but it ultimately leaves something left to be desired. The third act’s twist is whimsical, though very anticipated. There’s a point towards the end of the second act where you see things start to shift and can assume how everything will draw to a close, and it does, quite neatly, actually.
Even with its weaknesses, I will always praise a film like Next Exit, because it’s willing to use film as a medium to really examine humanity, our inherent duality, and question our connection to things so much bigger than ourselves. From the icy stardust left behind by comets that died long ago, to the echoes of our own dying humanity etched into our entire lives, Next Exit is the kind of film you go to film festivals for. It leaves its little flecks of light in your soul once the credits roll.