Human mortality, and the collective knowledge of our limited time on Earth, informs storytelling (and certainly life) on almost every level. But if an afterlife was scientifically confirmed—even if not in very specific terms—how might that change one’s decision-making?
That notion underpins Next Exit, which debuted at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, filtering a bit of downbeat philosophical noodling through a tried-and-true relationship dynamic, imprinted on the road trip genre.
The feature film writing and directing debut of Mali Elfman (daughter of Danny, cousin of Jenna) takes place in a world where the existence of ghosts has been confirmed, thanks to video evidence from Dr. Stevensen (a cameoing Karen Gillan, adopting a deeper speaking register clearly meant to evoke Elizabeth Holmes). This revelation has freed up some people from the fear of death, even as both government and organized religion struggle with how to adapt to the assisted-suicide business model of Stevensen’s company, Life Beyond.
It’s this pitch that in fact bonds Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli), two suicidal New Yorkers whose long-term despondency has led them to sign up and head west to be amongst the first wave of volunteers in this pioneering “research.” After initially meeting during a screw-up at the car rental agency, the pair learn of each other’s impending appointments and decide to share a rental car on a cross-country drive to San Francisco.
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Along the way, they cross paths with an assortment of characters, including tire-changing priest Jack (Tongayi Chirisa); PTSD-addled barfly John (Tim Griffin); and optimistic hitchhiker Karma (Diva Zappa). Goodnatured bickering (Teddy is talkative and wants to make his last trip a pleasant one; Rose is brusque and all-business, more invested in keeping a good pace) slowly gives way to a more functional relationship. This culminates in meet-ups with parties tied up in some of their respective trauma: Teddy’s estranged father Joe (Marcelo Tubert), and Rose’s sister Heather (Rose McIver) and brother-in-law Nick (Nico Evers-Swindell). Will any of these interactions impact their scheduled dates with death, however?
Next Exit plugs into some of the same existential questioning as Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, but takes a decidedly less bleak worldview. If the latter’s takeaway is, “Hell is other people,” the former could reasonably be described as, “Maybe another hell is a little better than this hell,” followed by a shrug emoji.
There have been a number of what might be characterized as suicide-forward projects in this still-young century, and while few of them actually lean fully and heavily into the complicated nature of their subject matter (the Netflix series Thirteen Reasons Why and Mark Pellington’s I Melt With You being arguably the most notable exceptions), Next Exit deserves credit for grounding the isolation and despair of its characters in believable pain.
The film doesn’t wink at or downplay its characters’ past attempts to kill themselves, and if their outward demeanors don’t present as the “typical” manifestations of suicidal depressives, that’s an important and welcome respite from the way in which mental health struggles are still too often given broad-brush treatment in fictionalized presentations.
Elfman perhaps grapples a bit with world-building, which is admittedly difficult to achieve in thumbnail fashion, given the road-movie conceit; graffitied billboards and a couple of talk radio inserts feel somewhat reductive in terms of sketching things out. Next Exit clearly isn’t interested in taking a stance on the morality of Teddy and Rose’s choices (or having bit players hash out their contrasting opinions), which is fine. But it additionally feels like it doesn’t have a lot to say about the afterlife confirmation at its core.
Viewers seeking more rigidly defined answers about that plot element (or even what Rose and Teddy might be expecting) will be more frustrated than those who merely submit to Next Exit as an off-center road movie with a couple of speculative science-fiction sprinklings. With this in mind, perhaps an even more streamlined, all-in character-study approach would have worked better for the movie.
Yet Elfman’s script is also engaging throughout. It’s perceptive, in low-key ways, about how sometimes the only person who can reach or connect with us is someone hurt or adrift in the same manner. If the thaw of its central relationship seems predetermined, Elfman consistently finds ways to put her cast in a good position to elevate this. This includes evocative and sometimes lacerating language of self-assessment, as when Rose sums up the adjudged inevitability of her fate with a casually tossed-off declaration: “I have a self-destruct button in my heart.”
Parker (The Haunting Of Hill House) and Kohli (iZombie) have wonderful chemistry. But more than that, they’re believably invested in their respective characters, who are each likable in their own way but also protective of their damage. They don’t flirt, or yield to connection, until a scene of role-play antagonism in which Rose finally goads Teddy into uncorking some of his bottled-up feelings—and, in fact, still distrust one another after this moment. In the context of this world, they feel three-dimensional.
The film’s modest but appealing technical package also helps distinguish and recommend it. Early in the movie, Elfman layers a bit of Rose and Teddy’s conversation over landscapes. Cinematographer Azuli Anderson makes effective use of natural lighting, and does a good job of capturing both the wistfulness and sense of possibility that open-road vistas can so frequently conjure.
In the end, one’s assessment and enjoyment of Next Exit rests less in its treatment of the more conjectural elements of its story, and more in its sensitive and sympathetic rendering of decidedly Earthbound, day-to-day messiness. Maybe the exit isn’t what we should be looking for, in other words.