NBFF Review: Mali Elfman’s Next Exit Addresses Difficult Topics Via A Unique Lens
When a research scientist makes national headlines by seemingly proving the existence of an afterlife and opening a facility that facilitates the peaceful transition to the other side for research purposes, people from all over the country travel to be the first ones to experience it. Two lost souls, Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) arrange travel plans with a car rental service to make the trip from New York to leave everything behind and be a part of the study, but when a mishap with their arrangements forces them to share the same rental vehicle they begin a journey that has them exploring what brought them to where they are now. Directed and written by Mali Elfman in her directorial debut, Next Exit is a rich character study that handles a lot of complex themes which will challenge its viewers to find the meaning of life through two characters on a collision course with death.
Judging by the plot description one might think that this is a science fiction film, and while it does initially tackle the discovery of the afterlife and the politics of the test facility those aspects take a backseat to the two characters in the front seat in Rose and Teddy. Throughout their journey which initially sees them quite annoyed with each other’s presence they slowly unveil layers of themselves and have them both questioning the other on the things that brought them together. Rose has attempted to end things herself in the past but couldn’t do it and Teddy has convinced himself that participating in this study will give his life the purpose it has been missing and these differing perspectives lead to a lot of rich conversations which are heavily relatable and had me attached to these characters by the end of the journey.
The characters are greatly enriched by the excellent performances from both Katie Parker (Absentia, The Haunting of Hill House) and Rahul Kohli (Midnight Mass, iZombie) who convey all of these complex emotions with ease. While the majority of the film features just the two of them interacting there are other characters who they come across during their journey including a patron at a bar who is struggling with PTSD which leads to one of the film’s darker moments as the three of them play a game of “Never Have I Ever.” Karen Gillan makes an appearance as Dr. Stevenson, the scientist who made the breakthrough and discovered the afterlife. There’s also a brief iZombie reunion as Rose McIver (who played the lead in iZombie alongside Rahul) gets paid a visit from the pair as the estranged sister of Rose. These moments act as catalysts for emotional breakthroughs by our two leads and really has them coming to terms with what they’re on a journey to accomplish.
Accompanying the bleak and cloudy mindsets of these characters is a visual palette that is almost entirely devoid of color that uses a wintry backdrop to merge the visuals with the thematics. That’s not to say it’s entirely visually dull as there is some great framing and movement including an opening long take that slowly reveals the movie’s premise through a ghostly experience. Rose is also haunted by the spirit of her late mother who appears to her in a visual sense throughout the film on multiple occasions and gives us a glimpse into the guilt and horrors she is experiencing. One of my favorite visual touches is when the camera is firmly planted in the backseat of the car as the two converse and we see their reactions entirely as a backseat passenger with facial reactions coming from clever placement of the rearview camera in the car.
Based on it’s premise alone Next Exit could’ve been a lot of different things but the decision to make it a nuanced character road trip drama, mixed with splashes of comedy and sci-fi, works in tandem to deliver an experience that is at times a lot to digest but is also extremely rewarding if you relate to the characters and their journeys. Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli give it their all in bringing these lost souls to life as they take their journey toward a potential new beginning they must confront the things that led to them wanting an ending at all.