Screenwriter and director Mali Elfman, “The Next Exit” is an existential drama wrapped in a journey with two strangers. The film boasts a pair of strong performances by Rahul Kohli (“Midnight Mass”) and Kathy Parker (“Doctor Sleep”), who do most of the emotional hard work. While the film is meant to explore the meaning of life, the characters’ place in it and their past, there are some aspects of the story that don’t completely merge together, which makes the film unbalanced but intriguing.
In “The Next Exit,” the controversial scientist Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan) firmly answered the question of life after death. Yes, there is such a thing, and people can voluntarily become part of an experiment linking the afterlife with the living. Rose (Parker), who sees a ghostly figure in reality, and Teddy (Kohli) were chosen for the experiment. Since before their meeting two days later, Rose reluctantly agrees to travel from New York to California to Dr. Stevenson’s facility. They are complete strangers, but they have one thing in common — Rose and Teddy are both ready to die, each for different reasons related to their past. On their journey, they come closer, breaking down the walls they have been building for a long time, and wondering if their decision to take part in the experiment is right, despite the fact that they were so sure of it from the very beginning.
Next Exit is emotionally touching in many ways. Rose and Teddy are haunted by the demons of the past, the mistakes they made, the regrets that affected their lives. They feel that there is nothing left for them. Although they start off on the wrong foot, it’s the strength of their relationship that moves the narrative forward and adds dimensions to a story that is otherwise quite subtle. Their existential dilemma is very intriguing, even if Elfman doesn’t seem fully interested in further exploring the afterlife program and its significance on a larger scale. The film is worth watching because it’s intimate, explores the layers of each character and deepens their relationship throughout the trip. This aspect of the film is greatly enhanced by the fantastic, subtle acting of Parker and Kohli. The actors have put a lot of effort into making the pain and emotions of their characters spectacular and believable. Their chemistry is also beautiful, moving from frustrated reluctance to understanding and trust.
It is a pity that the themes of the film as a whole are incomplete. Teddy and Rose want to commit suicide, but Next Exit doesn’t fully combat their depression or the fact that their pain may well continue into the afterlife now that it’s confirmed. Where does everything really end if there is an after? To this end, Elfman’s film obscures the answers to such questions, relying on the aspect of the journey to bring the film to an end. The meaning of life is something that cannot be fully formulated, and the film’s attempts to delve into such topics come too late, leaving gaps in a story that often tries to do too much. So much so that the finale, although emotional, does not seem fully deserved.
The overall moral push and pull is not as convincing as it could be, and the supernatural elements of the story are not impressive. Rose is literally haunted by ghosts, but she is little explored, except for the quick panics that happen from time to time. Of course, the ending of the film is much more encouraging than its beginning, but the “Next Exit” is a little lost in the middle. However, no matter what, Elfman’s directorial debut is enough to seal it, including a stunning cast and character dynamics that are thoughtful, interesting and complex.