Warning: Next Exit deals with the topics of suicide, self-harm, and euthanasia. While it does so in a very thoughtful manner, this writer understands that reading about such topics can be hard for some so I thought I’d add a warning prior to this review.
In writer/director Mali Elfman’s Next Exit, the concept of an afterlife has been confirmed, forever changing society’s perceptions of life and death which has major implications on both a societal level as well as in the realm of science. Leading the research in this ground-breaking new arena is Dr. Stevensen (Karen Gillan) who declares that her work is ushering in a new era of human existence, and is seeking participants to “join” (essentially, agree to die) in the research process that she and her team are conducting at the Life Beyond institute to get a grasp on just what exactly this revelation means and how people who exist on this other plane can still interact with those who are amongst the living.
Two such souls looking to be part of Dr. Stevensen’s program are Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) who are set to leave New York for one final drive to the West Coast before they embark on their afterlife excursion. But when they both have issues getting a rental car for the trip, they end up traveling together to Life Beyond, an experience that will forever transform them and their perceptions of what their lives mean after all.
I think what I really loved about Next Exit is that when you eliminate the meaning behind the destination that both Rose and Teddy are traveling towards, you end up having this wondrous meet-cute road trip that is propelled by genuinely phenomenal performances by both Park and Kohli who share an infectious chemistry together that you can’t help but be charmed by. But, once you take into consideration that these are two very broken people who are on this trip so that they can achieve certain death, that changes all these dynamics in Next Exit in a way that was a total gut-punch experience that hit me straight on and made me emotional the closer these two got to their “final destination” (a term that has several meanings here).
As mentioned, both Kohli and Parker’s performances in Next Exit are a huge highlight and I would easily watch 10 movies about these characters finding their way through life, both separately and together. When we meet Rose at the start of the film, she’s selling off her belongings so that she can afford her road trip, and she ends up messing with a guy who gets a little too “in her business” when he shows up to buy her TV, so she ends up tossing it down a stairwell and making a hasty exit while he deals with her chaotic response. Teddy is someone who has spent his entire life feeling like there’s been no meaning behind anything that he’s done or experienced, so he sees this opportunity of being a part of the Life Beyond research to be his major contribution that will benefit society and garner him the spotlight he has so desperately been searching for until now.
The way that Elfman’s script grounds both of these characters in a way that makes them and their journey relatable even if we aren’t exactly experiencing everything that they are is one of Next Exit’s greatest achievements. And for those of us who have dealt with suicidal issues or self-harm, both in the past and in the present, I think how those concepts are presented here is done in such a tactful way so that it never feels exploitative or intentionally triggering at all (that may not be how others respond, so just be mindful of your own limits while watching).
Truth be told, going into Next Exit I wasn’t really expecting a movie that was going to be focused more on exploring the human condition than it was on the supernatural story elements, since those seem to be the biggest hook, but I think it was this unexpected presentation of humanity and how we explore our own issues is what made me fall in love with it in the first place. Elfman’s feature film debut does a beautiful job of balancing out some tricky themes in a way that I think many people can relate to, and she never tries to push onto viewers any specific answers as to what the meaning of life is in a manner that feels inauthentic in relation to everything else that is explored throughout Next Exit. Elfman demonstrates here that she’s a talent to watch, and her story is elevated by a pair of incredible performances by both Parker and Kohli as well.
Movie Score: 4/5