A videoclip proves beyond a shadow of a doubt – you might have doubts, but we trust in the world of the film all objections have been raised and dismissed conclusively – that ghosts exist, in the sense of the survival of the individual human consciousness after death. This bombshell changes the world, with suicides among those eager to move on to an incorporeal state and all manner of societal alterations that take place at the fringes of the story – armed robbery is down because the threat of death isn’t a threat any more (though the threat of pain must still be a factor). Dr Stevenson (Karen Gillan) runs a controversial project in San Francisco which provides euthanasia for volunteers – whom she can track in the afterlife, making them pioneer/explorers rather than simple spooks.
Two volunteers – longtime personal screwup Rose (Katie Parker) and generally aimless Teddy (Rahul Kohli) – meet cute in a car rental outlet before making the cross-country trip. One is short a driving license valid beyond the week and the other a credit card needed even though the rental is prepaid by the Stevenson institute, and so they wind up sharing the car, though Rose insists on driving – and inevitably go through the five stages of rom-com (indifference, hostility, sex, crisis, love) on the road to deaths/transfigurations they might not be so keen to rush into now they have each other. Yes, it’s a riff on The Sure Thing – with an afterlife rather than a nymphomaniac in a white bikini as the illusory promise at the end of the road.
Written and directed by Mali Elfman, niece of the man who made Forbidden Zone and Shrunken Heads, this gives slightly short shrift to its imagined world – there could easily be a ten-part streaming miniseries in the premise, but the focus here is on the lead characters’ journey (in several senses of the term). We do get pointed little sketches with a priest (Tongayi Chirisa) trying to find a way to be a useful in a world where many of the church’s basic tenets have been undermined, a Border Patrol agent (Tim Griffin) with PTSD who has a darker idea of what ghosts are sticking around to do (punish their oppressors rather than contact loved ones), and a hippie chick (Diva Zappa) en route to a meteor-watch party. Fortuitously, the road trip route enables Rose and Teddy to drop in on their own estranged loved ones – Teddy’s father (Marcelo Tubert), who abandoned his wife and son for no apparent reason, and Rose’s high achieving sister (Rose McIver, Kohli’s co-star in iZombie) and her perfect-seeming husband (Nico Evers-Swindell). Neither of these encounters plays out the way the principles expect, and the real emotional development after the failed catharsis – big rows with family members fizzle – comes between Rose, who role-plays the confrontation Teddy can’t go through with, and Teddy, whose very British pointed refusal to be civil to Rose’s brother-in-law works better than a punch in the face.
Elfman seems to be writing herself into a corner – the big concept of the movie is exploring life after death, but the demands of the road trip rom-com/Sure Thing plotline tends to draw Rose and Teddy away from this Awfully Big Adventure into a relatable, but non-fantastical track. She’s clever enough to devise a have/eatcake solution, which means that the final act firmly keeps Next Exit in the realm of fantasy cinema. Parker and Kohli, who’ve both worked on Mike Ferguson projects, are outstanding – spiky, infuriating, engaging and entertaining, they’re great company for each other and us. As a road movie, this is deliberately bland and washed-out – presumably the trip is following the old Route 66 but everywhere looks the same … roadside bars, motels and restaurants all offer mild threat (the angry thug Teddy mistakes for his Dad) and a lack of local distinctiveness (compare the beauties, eccentricities and horrors found by the road in 70s films like Easy Rider, Scarecrow, Five Easy Pieces or even The Cannonball Run), though every cameo player brings something unique to the table (I’d say this was the best-cast film at FrightFest this year). Elfman does nod to the great days of the road movie, with one key stop along the way homaging Death Race 2000.