Next Exit, 2022.
Written and Directed by Mali Elfman.
Starring Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli, Rose McIver, Karen Gillan, Tongayi Chirisa, Diva Zappa, Gavin Powers, Joe Powers, Ty Molbak, Jim Ortlieb, Tongayi Chirisa, Tim Griffin, Jeffrey David Anderson, Marcelo Tubert, Nico Evers-Swindell, and Sloane Weber.
In a world where ghosts are real and front-page news, a controversial new medical procedure allows people to kill themselves peacefully. Amid this breakthrough, two strangers travel cross country together to end their lives, only to unexpectedly find what they’ve been missing along the way.
In Next Exit, ghosts are real, and the afterlife exists. There’s viral footage of a boy being taught a card game by his apparition father (apparently, only the father knows the rules of the game), which turns out to be so touching and positively reassuring regarding life after death that suicide rates have driven upward. Why live a miserable existence filled with crushing debt, soul-draining 9-to-5 shifts, or depression when one can simply off themselves and still interact with loved ones?
There is also a scientific experiment headed up by ambitious but morally questionable Dr. Stevensen (Karen Gillan, appearing through broadcast news footage and videos detailing her work) that will function as assisted suicide while using those people for a group study worker team can further study the afterlife. However, Next Exit is pleasantly not about possibly nefarious science, the experiments, or even Dr. Stevensen, but rather two individuals signed up for the group study that are forced into a cross-country road trip together to reach that destination.
They are Teddy (Rahul Kohli) and Rose (Katie Parker), cornered into helping one another out (one’s driver’s license is expiring, prohibiting them from picking up the rental car, whereas the other doesn’t have a required credit card to pay for it). Naturally, both are suicidal, containing different outlooks on signing up for the study. Teddy wants his rough life to wind up meaning something, and Rose wants to be removed from her misery. Rose is far more nihilistic and cynical, closing herself off to the idea of casual conversation and becoming friends on this journey. Meanwhile, Teddy is slightly cheery and eager to get to know one another.
Next Exit reveals itself to be a road trip movie, with Teddy and Rose encountering various supporting characters that exist to provide more context to this world or remind them that even during the darkest times, there is still much about life worth living. And while many of these performances are solid, writer/director Mali Elfman’s script routinely fails at offering a sense of naturalism to these random occurrences, quick to take small emotional beats and blow them up into sentimentalism that doesn’t ring true. The people they come across (ranging from priests to military vets to drifters excited for an upcoming meteor shower) carry a degree of individuality, but their true purpose is to keep shuffling Teddy and Rose along to predictable realizations.
Yes, this eventually transitions into a warped rom-com of sorts (some humor involving suicidal discussions is carefully threaded), with Teddy and Rose choosing to behave recklessly along the way before fully opening up to one another. This leads them to push one another to resolve those issues, which admittedly fares better, considering the revolving characters are family members, and the film is starting to pay off some of its prior dialogue teases.
Even these segments have frustratingly forced touches that leave one confounded; Teddy tries to reconcile with his father, that abandoned him 30 years ago, prepared to give them a piece of his mind, but suddenly has a change of heart when dad gets a royal flush on a digital slot machine inside the bar. Even the presence of ghosts only arises when it becomes convenient for storytelling.
There is also the transparency of the narrative; we know where Next Exit is going and what the film is struggling to do, which would be fine if all of the above felt more organic (the film desperately needs at least one more rewrite). The leads also occasionally struggle to convince in the most dramatically weighty scenes. Fortunately, the concept alone (which isn’t necessarily original but typically intriguing) and themes are worth consuming and exploring, but Next Exit squanders most of that with a shaky script.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com