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Next Exit review: Mali Elfman’s feature debut is a genre-blending contemplation of trauma and death

Technically, we can’t really call Mali Elfman’s (the daughter of legendary film composer and musician Danny Elfman) feature debut a suicide movie. Still, Next Exit cleverly implements and explores the fundamental and existential aspects of the subgenre. And it does that in a plot that’s less interested in its (otherwise intriguing) sci-fi premise and more in the human emotions and thoughts it naturally evokes about death.

Next Exit takes place in a near, dystopian future, where a doctor in San Francisco called Dr Stevenson (Kare Gillan) discovers and proves that the afterlife not only exists but our consciousness can be transferred and continue to live on beyond our physical bodies. What that means is that we can simply live on as ghosts. Stevenson’s proof is a video recording — captured in her Life Beyond study — that reveals the spirit of a father talking to his son. Understandably, the discovery has an enormous impact on society. No surprise there: Who wouldn’t entertain the thought of getting rid of every financial, emotional, and physical burden we face in this life? So suicide and homicide rates spike up in the country, even though Stevenson’s scientific program is strictly experimental and volunteer-based — and it can’t guarantee the desired result. What it can, though, is the painless assisted suicide to cross over.

Our protagonists, Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli), are enrolled in the program and have an appointment to end their physical existence in less than a week. They both have different reasons for wanting to die. Teddy views his life as a failure and desires to become a part of something substantial and be a pioneer. Rose has lost almost everyone that mattered and wants to commit suicide but can’t muster up the courage to do so (not for the lack of trying). They meet at the car rental place, where they reluctantly agree to take the trip together after finding out that mistakes were made by the company that reserved both of their cars with the same destination.

Although their travel starts unpleasantly (Rose isn’t much of a talker while Teddy doesn’t seem to shut up), the two slowly begin to let their guard down as time and miles pass. They develop mutual sympathy and start to bond over their idiosyncrasies, awkward childhood anecdotes, and the unsuccessful, yet also darkly funny, suicide attempts they made over the years. As the journey moves forward, the two gradually warm up to each other through conversation and share a more profound reason behind their choices to enrol in the Life Beyond program.

Elfman’s intimate script — which she wrote over ten years — is able to find the humour underneath all the bleakness and let the characters drive the story. Every dark joke and every pathetic anecdote they share during the trip is there to release tension and bring a brim of light to their dire reality. Talking and joking about misery and failure lead to a naturally growing chemistry and trust that culminates in a night (involving a lot of drinking) that triggers the underlining traumas Rose and Teddy carefully hid from each other until that point. This glimpse into their tortured and wounded souls vaguely reveals the root cause of their initial inclination for death, which is a lot different than what they let us believe before.

And with that moving sincerity, the urgency for making each other face their traumas and help overcome their fears grows larger than they anticipated. It shocks them both that after so much time wanting to escape their existence, they might’ve found something worthwhile they could actually want to live for. Elfman lets these ambivalent feelings linger and refrains from interfering with the characters’ realizations. She gives them time to process them at their own pace and find out what this newly found connection might mean. The question is: Is it powerful enough to change their minds before it’s too late?

Elfman blends several genres together effortlessly, and Parker and Kohli are more than capable of adjusting to these dramatic shifts with a vast emotional skillset. By the end, Next Exit transforms from a dark comedy into a powerful sci-fi drama to show the pros and cons of living without forcing us to take sides. If we allow ourselves to join the spiritual journey alongside the physical one, we’ll be rewarded with a heartfelt finale that subtly conveys the meanings that life can give us to stay in this physical (if often unbearable) existence before crossing over to the land of the unknown. And with that ending, Next Exit takes the leap to resemble the best and most empathetic suicide movies out there.

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