Philadelphia Film Festival Review: Next Exit

Philadelphia Film Festival Review: Next Exit

The biggest surprise of PFF31 so far has got to be Mali Elfman’s feature debut Next Exit. Promoted as a sci-fi road movie, this thoughtful sorta-chiller provided some of the strongest and most emotional moments of any film I’ve seen so far. Vibes of Benson/Moorhead abound, with two of the best performances of the year, it’s a film that I pray will hit as many screens and eyes as possible, filling the latter with tears.

This isn’t to say that Next Exit is some brutally emotional struggle of a movie. Not by a long shot. In addition to being supremely moving, it’s also rather funny, and occasionally spooky as well. It’s a relaxing watch that runs the gamut of what a film can evoke in a viewer — a downright magical alchemy so often missing from big budget sci-fi.

Next Exit takes place in a world where it would appear death has been conquered. Not in terms of physical immortality, but in terms of the afterlife. When footage of a young child conversing with the ghost of his departed father emerges and is scientifically verified, humanity’s relationship with death fundamentally changes. The more hopeful among us see it as proof that we go on after we die, while the more morose see it as an excuse to leave this mortal coil and end the suffering inherent to physical existence.

The company that has verified the existence of ghosts, led by a passively nefarious doctor (played with an Elizabeth Holmes-ian air by Karen Gillan) wishes to study this phenomenon in depth, and has put out a call for volunteers to essentially be killed and then studied. Our duo of protagonists (Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli – A The Haunting of Bly Manor reunion!), have answered the call and must make their way to California for the study. Due to a misunderstanding with their respective rental cars, the strangers are now stuck traveling together. It’s going to be a long drive.

Elfman’s script uses the road trip format not as a crutch, but as a way of showing a world upended by this discovery, while also steadily revealing information as to why these two lost souls are so interested in ending their lives. The big questions that we humans tend to ask are put under a microscope in ways that feel as natural as the bond which slowly forms between the reluctant duo — two characters who anyone could see a bit of themselves in.

Huge props to Parker and Kohli for finding a deep well of humanity amidst two very different people with very different motivations for the same goal. It’s the kind of relationship that, if written and performed with less care, could come across as hokey, but here it feels lived-in and true to life. They bring warmth to a film that maintains a purposefully icy vibe, so much so that at two distinct moments in my viewing experience, I was suddenly reduced to cathartic tears. Neither moment came with any big plot revelations or shocking turns of events, but rather as a result of the right words delivered the right way.

A truly stunning debut from a filmmaker who has enetered my “will never miss one of their films” list. I am in awe.

(Rahul Kohli’s pending superstardom is exciting and well-earned).

Directed by Mali Elfman

Written by Mali Elfman

Starring Katie Parker, Rahul Kohli, Karen Gillan, Ty Molbak

Not rated, 106 minutes

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