Next Exit review – lo-fi road movie takes an all-too-familiar turn
Mali Elfman's initially intriguing debut grapples admirably with notions of love and death but its drama is too thinly realised
A low budget should never restrain filmmakers from exploring ambitious concepts, which is what makes writer-director Mali Elfman’s efforts on Next Exit so frustrating – it’s a hair away from a profound and enriching watch. The lo-fi, high-concept drama is set in a world filled with ghost sightings, and with an afterlife scientifically proven, a cutting-edge biotech company allows people to commit suicide if they’d prefer to see the great beyond sooner rather than later. Two misanthropic strangers, Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohil), end up on a cross-country trip to their respective appointments at “Life Beyond,” where (to no-one’s surprise) they foster an unlikely connection that makes them question their end-of-life arrangements.
Even this synopsis reveals the biggest weakness to Next Exit – its dramatic arc is fairly thin. Both Rose and Teddy have reasons for their suicidal convictions, ones they’re reluctant to share with strangers, but bit by bit they’re going to open themselves up to vulnerability and therefore each other. But this emotional process feels too stilted and incremental for us to buy into them as genuine characters, making much of their road trip feel like a procedural info-dump rather than a drive towards mortality. With each of the varied encounters the pair have on their journey – a holy man, a guilty lawman – we view this seismically altered world with a different lens, but what’s lacking is a clear sense of urgency. People offer unique reflections, all performed well and with moments of poignancy, but too often it feels like we’re stalling for time.
What is refreshing about Next Exit is its frankness on suicide, and the challenging and darkly comic whiplash caused by integrating it into a contemporary wellness culture – something Elfman works into promotional footage of Life Beyond and conversations with the clinic’s staff (including a role for Karen Gillan). But the initial friction and overly snarky dialogue between Rose and Teddy proves grating, and even though we settle much more into the nuances of the characters in the second half (aided by Parker and Kohil’s noteworthy chemistry), it still feels like we’re exploring what should be thorny, volatile drama with too much talking. While Next Exit comes to a nice close with expressive, immersive visuals in its climax, the film leaves us with an annoying lingering question – why couldn’t the rest be like that?
Next Exit isn’t the first story that centres the morbid repercussions of proving there’s an afterlife, nor is it alone in telling a tiny human story against a humanity-altering sci-fi concept. Films like Another Earth, The Discovery or Dual all face the struggle of needing characters who have as many complexities as the film’s premise invites. For a debut, it’s commendable to see Elfman approach difficult taboos, even if the film is content to leave a lot of questions about its conceit unasked or unanswered. It isn't necessary to address every obvious expectation raised about your premise, but audiences should at least leave feeling like something substantive has been offered.
Next Exit is released on digital platform on 20 February.Where to watch