Review: NEXT EXIT, A Life After Death (After Life) Road Romance
In writer-director Mali Elfman’s feature-length debut, Next Exit, the world as we’ve come to know it doesn’t end with a bang or even a whimper, but on the society-upending revelation that ghosts do, in fact, exist and thus, so does the afterlife.
What shape that afterlife takes, however, remains a mystery throughout most of Next Exit’s running time, in essence becoming the final frontier. For some, possibly many, the probability of a new, different, and ultimately better (after) life is more than sufficient to justify taking their own lives (which some do, apparently, though mostly offscreen).
Shot last year during the pandemic, Next Exit opens on a bit of a feint or a dodge, introducing a young boy huddled under blankets, a slowly opening closet door, and the revelation of a gray, smudgy figure straight out of a J-Horror entry. Moments later, relief arrives as the boy recognizes his late father, visiting so they can play cards.
A pullback reveals a video camera capturing the entire incident on digital film, which, in turn, ushers in the premise of the film and a cutting-edge research facility, “Life Beyond,” located on the West Coast of the U.S., specializing initially on the paranormal and later, on helping research subjects transition into the afterlife.
Elfman’s film doesn’t focus on the facility, its director, Dr. Stevensen (Karen Gillan, shown briefly via embedded video footage), or on a macro-level view of the social, political, and cultural changes that would result in the wake of such a life-and-death changing revelation. Instead, Next Exit centers on two future participants of Stevensen’s research, Rose (Katie Parker), a thirty-something literally haunted by the untimely death of her mother, and Teddy (Rahul Kohli), a Brit transplant who sees himself as a failure both personally and professionally.
A credulity-straining meet-cute later and Rose and Teddy are sharing a cross-country drive in a rental car. While both Rose and Teddy seem eager to exit this world for the next, Rose’s cynicism and negativity make travel with her an initial slog for the far more accepting Teddy. If anything, given Teddy’s garrulous personality and easy-going charm, it’s something of a stretch to get the audience buying into Teddy’s desire to end his life. While he’s hoping to leave a lifetime of disappointments behind, he seems relatively well-adjusted and an unlikely suicide.
Given the context of a road-trip movie and its related tropes, Rose and Teddy’s sharply contrasting personalities make more sense. Their contrasts lead to the friction and conflict necessary to keep the underlying narrative moving forward rather than sinking into repetition and/or tedium.
In that respect, Elfman succeeds, sometimes brilliantly, always intelligently, turning both Rose and Teddy — plus the foundational personal issues they need to overcome, becoming somewhat better people in the process — into flawed, if ultimately relatable, root-worthy characters.
Along the way, Rose and Teddy meet colorful and less-than-colorful characters, including a priest, Father Jack (Tongayi Chirisa), attempting to reconcile himself to the new reality, a New-Age hitchhiker, Karma (Diva Zappa), with one or two insights to share, a military veteran, Chad (Ty Molbak), literally haunted by an ill-thought-out decision, and semi-planned stops to figures from Rose and Teddy’s respective pasts. Closure proves to be far more difficult than it initially appears for both characters.
It’s become a cliche to say “It’s the journey and not the destination that matters most,” but at least where Next Exit is concerned, it’s true, depending on the chemistry of the two leads and their delivery of Elfman’s crisp, clear, naturalistic dialogue. In that modest goal, Next Exit succeeds completely, placing Elfman on the short list of first-time filmmakers to follow closely on what should be a long, rewarding career.
Next Exit opens in movie theaters and via various Video On Demand platforms on Friday, November 4, 2022, via Magnolia Pictures. Visit the official site for more information.
- Mali Elfman
- Mali Elfman
- Gavin Powers
- Joe Powers
- Katie Parker