by Hope Madden
Suicidal ideation takes a road trip in writer/director Mali Elfman’s feature debut, Next Exit.
Rose (Katie Parker) doesn’t like you. She does not want you to like her. She just wants to get to San Francisco. What’s in San Francisco? Dr. Stevenson’s experiment, which has proven the existence of an afterlife and is recruiting additional participants in the study.
A mix-up over car rental puts Rose in the same vehicle as another of Dr. Stevenson’s voyagers, Teddy (Rahul Kohli). Teddy likes everybody. Even Rose.
They have four days to drive from NYC to San Fran to end their lives. Rose just wants to get there. Teddy can’t see any reason they shouldn’t enjoy the journey.
As a character study, Next Exit soars. Parker and Kohli – both veterans of Mike Flanagan’s various genre pieces – create complicated, believable, fascinating characters. Their chemistry is terrific, and you care what happens to them. Their dynamic makes the road trip aspect of the film come alive. The cross-country antics that in other films can feel like strung-together gags seem more organic because Elfman’s investment is inside the car, not what happens outside of it.
The filmmaker is less successful with other aspects of the movie. What happens to society once it takes no leap of faith to believe in an afterlife? This is touched on but handled perhaps too subtly. The supernatural element hinted at in the opening segment remains vague to the bitter end and casting Karen Gillan in essentially a cameo role as the scientist only draws attention to this limitation. The existential dread isn’t even particularly well-developed.
But the core performances are not to be denied. Both actors fully commit to peculiar characters, each fully drawn turn allowing the other to uncover more backstory and humanity. The farther into the film you get, the more you appreciate what Kohli and Parker accomplish.