Writer/director Mali Elfman’s directorial feature debut sets its story after the world has finally solved one of its most elusive questions; is there life after death? Next Exit answers that question straightaway by introducing a society that’s widely embraced the presence of ghosts, especially those of loved ones. But not all hauntings are welcome, and Elfman’s supernatural drama uses life-after-death as a springboard for a rumination on life and past traumas via a heartfelt road trip movie.
Strangers Rose (Katie Parker, Absentia, “The Haunting of Bly Manor”) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli, “Midnight Mass”) meet at a car rental place. Both planned a long drive from New York to San Francisco for appointments with Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan) and her revolutionary scientific study Life Beyond. In it, Dr. Stevenson helps volunteers commit pain-free suicide so she can study the afterlife and how ghosts interact with the mortal plane. Rose and Teddy couldn’t be further apart in personality and motivations but traveling together over what’s to be their final days forges deep bonds as they confront the pasts that haunt them.
Elfman casts this world of ghosts in washed-out lighting. It’s a wintry road trip for Rose and Teddy, but the cold is as internal as it is external. It parallels the slow thawing between the pair. What begins as a caustic, tenuous partnership by necessity evolves into something far more complex and endearing. The supernatural element is merely peripheral and supplemental to Elfman’s character-driven dramedy. The ghosts occasionally scare, but this is a narrative about the living.
That’s more prevalent with Rose, an abrasive and guarded character still very much tormented by literal ghosts from her past. Opposite her is the more lighthearted and listless Teddy, with very different reasons for this Life Beyond appointment. Rose and Teddy frequently bicker and clash until various scenarios and encounters along the route lead to common ground and appreciation. It’s a romantic comedy scenario shrouded by the afterlife and suicide ideations.
Parker and Kohli again demonstrate effortless charisma that imbues rooting interest from the outset. Next Exit may present a world with a definitive afterlife, but it’s not interested in exploring any answers. As Rose and Teddy encounter suicidal hitchhikers, PTSD-afflicted veterans, and uplifting priests that alter their perceptions, Elfman seeks to underscore that no one knows what they’re doing or holds life’s secrets. The filmmaker is more interested in how that intimately affects her lead characters. As broad and shallow as that can be, Parker and Kohli bring complexity and an infectious charm to their characters that invest you regardless. You wind up caring about Rose and Teddy even if they don’t seem to care about themselves.
Despite the bleak premise, Next Exit aims to instill hope. It’s not just the cast that’s reminiscent of Mike Flanagan’s works, but the ponderous monologues and reflections on life framed through the supernatural. It’s a charming dramedy that pares back scale and style. It never gets too heady or deep with its musings either, and the pacing can sag because of it. Instead, Next Exit is a loose, horror-adjacent showcase for Parker and Kolhi’s talents. Forget about the afterlife; their winsome performances and chemistry will leave you wondering why they aren’t more prominent stars.
Next Exit made its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.