A beautiful exploration of accountability, belief and connection.
Synopsis: The world changes in a flash when a scientist shockingly claims she’s able to track consciousness after death hence proving the existence of an afterlife. Rose and Teddy, two deeply tormented strangers on their way to join this new study, cross paths and reluctantly agree to travel together cross-country. The journey to voluntarily end their lives proves not to be such an easy exit plan as they’re haunted both literally and figuratively by the ghosts of their pasts.
It is a well-worn fact that I will cry at a film at least once at every film festival I attend. Next Exit is a deeply emotional journey, taken with flawed but immensely charming characters and immense control over the material that could easily slip into something mawkish in the wrong hands. As a feature debut for director and writer Mali Elfman it suggests a promising future with a confident use of genre elements to tell a touching story. As a sufferer of depression, the condition can often make you feel like a passenger in your own life, so the use of a literal journey within the film perfectly echoes not only that personal experience but also unpacking of the film’s themes of accountability and taking control.
Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) are two people who are dissatisfied with their lives. Estranged from family and friends, they both seem to have found an answer to their dissatisfaction with life in the need for Dr. Stevensen’s (Karen Gillan) call for volunteers to assist in further study. A travel mix-up results in the pair sharing a car to the facility. Throughout the journey, the pair begin to unpick their differences and similarities in approaches to life (and death).
As the synopsis suggests, this is not a film that is going all out to scare, placing the focus on the relationship between the characters as they progress on their journey, both with one another and the others they encounter. Whether speaking to strangers or revisiting figures from their pasts, those conversations are woven into both characters’ individual reckonings as well as the way they relate to one another.
The setup is an excellent one, delivered simply and effectively via video footage of a young boy sitting to play a game with his deceased father. That search for connection to an afterlife and an ability to reconnect with those who have passed is an understandably seductive concept. However, the film posits that such a discovery would also unearth panic and a crisis of faith amongst the wider population. Much of this discussion is background noise within the film, with Dr Stevensen appearing via brief talk show clips to discuss the findings and debate around ‘the right to die’. Taking the journey with two people who have already made up their minds about their decision allows the film to focus on their characters and their humanity, rather than more broad ethical concerns.
Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli are excellent as co-leads and their chemistry is undoubtedly a highlight. Parker is captivating as a woman so outwardly furious at herself and the world around her but is also able to capture the fragility underneath. A particular scene is utterly heartbreaking for the way she is able to shift between these states in a way that perfectly illustrates how she has lived her life. The impact on others of her self-destructive cycles is evident and the pain is palpable. From a starting point of wise-cracking and excellent comic timing from Kohli, Teddy too evolves into showcasing his own troubles in ways that tug at the heartstrings. Each revelation feels messy and more importantly, human.
While Next Exit does involve some creepy imagery and well-staged moments that capture a sense of dread, this is not the focal point of the film. If you are looking for scares and a traditional ‘ghost story’ you won’t find it here. In fact, it is arguably the scene that leans most into genre elements that worked the least for me. For all the subtlety the rest of the film possesses a sudden, more literal take does somewhat jar.
Next Exit is one of those uniquely touching films that handles an immensely sensitive subject with care, insight and empathy.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Next Exit played as part of the North Bend Film Fest 2022.