Tribeca 2022: NEXT EXIT is a Deftly Executed Debut

Ghosts are indeed real, in this supernatural road movie that explores suicide, depression, friendship and family

Next Exit, which recently world premiered at Tribeca is the assured writing/directorial debut of Mali Elfman, daughter of legendary composer Danny Elfman. The film transpires in a not too distant future where the Elizabeth Holmes-eque, Dr. Stevensen (Karen Gillan) has proven the existence of ghosts, and therefore an afterlife. Give our current socio/political cesspool of debt, depression and disregard for our fellow man, many see this revelation as a legit way out, and suicide becomes an escape hatch for many.

In an interesting move on the script’s take on the supernatural, while it’s been proven that ghosts do exist and some individuals can indeed see them, we still don’t fully understand how this exactly works. The narrative is a supernatural road movie that follows an unlikely pair of travelers — Teddy (Rahul Kohli) and Rose (Katie Parker), who are driving from New York to San Francisco in a rental, one way, to be some of the first to participate in Stevensen’s “Life Beyond” program. This program hopes to begin to unlock the secrets of the afterlife by allowing these “pioneers’ to “cross over” under the doctor’s watch.

When the film begins and we set off on this road trip, both protagonists have lost the will to live and don’t personally care to share this pilgrimage with anyone, but their own demons. As we travel cross country, their truths are slowly revealed, and the pair begin to assist the other in making some kind of amends. It’s because of their final destination, and the limited time left, both parties are allowed to be just vulnerable enough to begin a healing that allows both characters to possibly find something in the other that may be worth living for. The film isn’t trite, or saccharin, about how this relationship begins to manifest itself and it’s also careful not to allow this to distract or override their friendship or the growth that would need to take place to allow something like this to take root in our walking wounded pair. It’s a testament to Rahul and Katie’s natural chemistry and performances that it doesn’t feel cliche, coerced, or distract from the darker themes when some romantic interludes begin to present themselves to the pair.

If you’re familiar with Gillan’s suicide prevention activism, or her feature directorial debut, The Party’s Just Beginning, about the high rate of suicide in her home of the Scottish Highlands, this alludes to something more nefarious to Dr. Stevensen’s promise of an otherworldly paradise. I was transfixed by this story and the mechanics of the discovery of an afterlife presented in this film, almost as much as the story of Teddy and Rose. The film uses this supernatural plot device to dig in and examine some very relevant themes in their relationship, such as suicide, depression, friendship and family, in a way that would be impossible otherwise. It’s a fascinating means to an end that also infuses the film with a world building and mythology I wasn’t expecting, as the road movie is littered with terrifying flourishes as Rose appears to have some otherworldly connection to the beyond. Mali Elfman has crafted a fascinating, and haunting story, that is filled with a deeply touching empathy for characters that wouldn’t have been given this kind of care in lesser hands. It’s a tale that’s deftly executed and leaves the audience wanting more, filled with heart and the kind of performances that shows a keen eye for the human experience and makes me excited as to what she chooses to tackle next.

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