By: Emily von Seele
Next Exit is an elegant blend of genres that coalesce into something both beautiful and haunting. Mali Elfman’s feature debut is a film rooted in death, but filled with the bittersweet challenges of the human experience.
In the world of this film, science has recently proven the existence of life after death. And now that we know, conclusively, that there is an afterlife, the whole game has changed. If death isn’t really the end, what does that mean? Do we all become ghosts? Do we have a choice to hang around? If we do hang around, what are our capabilities? So many questions.
Enter Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan), whose Life Beyond Institute was founded on the backbone of this new scientific discovery and the desire to learn the truth of what lies beyond. She has recruited a number of volunteers to participate in a study at her institute in San Francisco, where they will voluntarily terminate their lives so that Dr. Stevenson’s team can study what comes next.
Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Khouli) are two of the selected participants. While both volunteered for different reasons, they are on the path to the same destination (figuratively and literally). So when the rental company ties their cars up in bureaucratic red tape, the two strangers decide to pool their resources and travel cross-country together in order to reach San Francisco by their appointed dates.
At first, it’s a bit of a rough ride. Teddy is excited and wants to engage with Rose, but she is abrasive and has no interest in making new friends at this point in her life. They immediately clash. Teddy and Rose are both broken people, albeit in very different ways. They are each deeply wounded by something in their past, and participating in Dr Stevenson’s study represents a path forward. A path to redemption, to success, a way out. But like any good road trip movie, the obstacles that they encounter along the way eventually bring them closer and begin to provide them both with the connection that their lives have been lacking.
Teddy and Rose are incredibly complex characters. They are polar opposites, and both are struggling with some pretty dark demons. Rahul Khouli and Katie Parker embody every aspect of these characters beautifully. They shine in both the funny moments and the difficult ones, and bring every inch of these people to the screen in fantastic performances.
The world Elfman creates is fascinating. Exploring this simple question — “What if death isn’t really the end?” — offers a lot of interesting possibilities for world building, and Elfman takes excellent advantage of them. Over the course of the journey, we see people who are excited about the possibilities, and people who are incredibly fearful. We see how individuals react to this new information, as well as the reaction of institutions, religions, and the government. Something that we had so recently believed to be final is now just another step in existence, and the response to this information is a particularly interesting aspect of the film.
Elfman’s story connects with its audience in a very specific way. The world in Next Exit is facing a watershed moment and an important point of change. The confirmation of existence beyond death means that nothing can ever be as it was before. The world is now different. Just how different remains to be seen. In many ways, it feels similar to our own world. It feels as though we too are at a precipice. With everything going on right now — from the continuing global pandemic, to the climate crisis, to the states of individual governments — it feels as though we can never again go back to what once was. The future is very unclear.
Alongside that feeling of bleak uncertainty, Elfman’s story shines a light on the fact that, even in troubling times, human beings have the unique ability to be there for one another. To be present. We can feel completely alone in the world, but we are still able to show up for one another and be the support and the encouragement that another person needs. And that person can be there for us too.
Rose and Teddy are broken people. They have flaws, and they try to be better, but it doesn’t always happen. Despite those flaws — and despite the uncertainty and the crap they have each been through — they are miraculously able to still find joy in it all. They are able to connect with other people and to share the things that make us human.