Director: Mali Elfman
Writer: Mali Elfman
Cast: Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli, Karen Gillan
Producers: Derek Bishé, Mali Elfman, Narineh Hacopian
Music: Ariel Marx
Cinematographer: Azuli Anderson
Editor: Brett W. Bachman
Cert: 15 (TBC)
Running time: 106mins
What’s the story: A video depicting a ghost provides proof of the afterlife. The Life Beyond organisation begins a scientific study to track volunteers’ transition from life into death. Strangers Rose (Parker) and Teddy (Kohli) travel from east coast to west to take part in the study.
What’s the verdict: As the adage goes, life is what happens when you’re making other plans. That goes double when you’re planning for your own demise. Katie Parker’s Rose and Rahul Kohli’s Teddy are going to discover this and more in Mali Elfman’s romantic and thrilling kind-of sci-fi, kind-of horror movie.
With the afterlife now a certainty, death has lost a sizeable amount of its sting. People are volunteering to take the great leap beyond. Some stand in front of oncoming vehicles, others choose a more scientific route. The controversial Dr Stevensen (Gillan) has begun a programme that scientifically tracks volunteers as they are euthanised in controlled conditions.
Two people ready to make the jump are Rose and Teddy. What Rose is unprepared for is being forced to drive from New York state to California with Teddy after a foul-up with their car rental agreements. But, in time honoured road movie tradition, secrets, truths, and surprises are revealed as they travel coast-to-coast.
For her feature debut, Mali (daughter of Danny) Elfman brings an assured directorial hand to what could have been an indigestible metaphysical muse. Melodrama-friendly themes of daddy issues, family betrayal, regret, and the futility of it all are stirred into the eventful 106 minute runtime.
But, Elfman successfully balances the various tones, and the film’s razor sharp humour fillets any hint of cheap sentiment. Instead we get believable characters, genuine emotion, and several scenes that will rank amongst the year’s best. Next Exit is a film of many flavours, but by the closing credits they’ve all been lightly salted because of that pesky bit of dust in your eye.
Parker (notable in the Shelley Duvall role in Doctor Sleep) is heartbreaking as Rose, a woman unable to make sense of this world, hoping for better luck in the next. Fellow Mike Flanagan regular Kohli is a perfect foil, but his breezy charm and quick wit masks pain of his own. His face can flit from the warmest smile to conveying all the sorrows of the world.
Evoking the spirit of It Happened One Night, The Sure Thing, and The Straight Story, this hits familiar road movie beats. Yet the unusual premise provides everything a fresh coat. A detour drop-in on an estranged family member echoes Midnight Run, another cross-country film in which an antagonistic traveller learns valuable life lessons. Elsewhere, a bucket list of adventures recalls Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail. Hanging over it all is a humanist compassion reminiscent of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Afterlife. Helping with the emotion are the evocative wintry landscapes and vast open skies captured in Azuli Anderson’s cinematography.
Wider implications of the plot fill out background details and side stories. A man is literally haunted by five people he accidentally killed, raising the notion that not every spirit may be benign. Radio reports tell of burglaries dropping because the threat of death no longer carries as much weight. As graffiti on a church sign asks, when is Jesus gonna show up?
Arguably too little time is given to how many people would doubt the one piece of video evidence, which has presumably led to global spikes in suicide. But, Next Exit is exactly what we need right now, a rich, warm, optimistic drama.