Of all the times and all the places in the course of everything, I can’t imagine being dropped into this. The technology we’ve developed and become subservient to in the last five years alone is mind boggling, let alone 20. Actor Logan Marshall-Green’s feature debut as a writer/director, Adopt A Highway, plays out in the selective world our dependencies have fashioned in a well-intended picture that feels noble for wanting to tell an honest and personally gratifying story, but whose minimalist screenplay ultimately feels like it should’ve had something more to say.
Marshall-Green finally found himself a place on the radar at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival with Leigh Whannell’s surprise hit Upgrade. Usually put in such sorts of gun or fist wielding roles, Adopt A Highway sees the action star take an unexpected turn into a much slower arena of storytelling. While the attempt of trying something new is admirable, the film consequently feels like the product of a first-timer who was perhaps a little too hasty.
The redeeming characteristic of the pic comes, however, in the form of its star, Ethan Hawke, whose performance last year in Paul Schrader’s First Reformed was recognized by practically every award-giving body – that is, with the criminal exception of the Academy. In comparison, Marshall-Green offers the actor hardly any the amount of character depth or intrapersonal conflict, but still, Hawke is able to drive the lacking narrative as much as he can with another boundlessly empathetic performance.
He plays Russell Millings, a victim of California’s “three-strike” legislation, stuck in prison for over 20 years after getting caught with marijuana three times. With this hyperbolized, now extinct punishment (one “up-to-speed” character laughs at the ridiculousness of Millings’ arrest, not long after taking a selfie with him to emphasize the rarity of meeting a man who’s never been on the internet), the director immediately points us in the right direction as Russell is portrayed as a stunted, jumbled man-child, ripped away from some of the most important years of his life.
With no trace of any sort of vocational training, Russell opts for the simplest route in satisfying his parole. He takes a busser job at a fast food joint and performs robotically, clocking in, clocking out, and retiring to his empty motel room for the night. Russell’s apparent lack of preparation for, well, everything makes up the film’s most biting commentary, and while this intriguing, but unfortunately valid concept of an inmate grappling with his adjustment to the real world is a constant theme, the rest of Adopt A Highway feels less centered, consequently coming off like a project cut in half by two separate narratives.
One night, Russell hears crying coming from the dumpster behind his work. He opens it to discover an infant inside – the note attached to her is a brilliantly solemn display of abandonment, reading only “her name was Ella” – and with seemingly no fortitude to contact the authorities, he decides to take care of her himself.
Their relationship, figuratively strengthened by their lack of understanding and almost sweet ignorance of the outside world, makes up most tender moments of the film. For a while, it also seems to be its focus, but it comes to an abrupt end, and the rest of the 78-minute long movie drags on by experimenting with several other, nearly un-fleshed narrative ideas.
Adopt A Highway seems as confused as its lead character, wandering around and never quite figuring out what story it wants to tell. To Marshall-Green’s credit, the interactions between Russell and Ella are genuinely touching, though much of that can be probably be attributed to yet another impressive performance from Hawke. But a lot of the problems that besiege the film seem to be the result of a lack of collaboration. Throw in another writer (or two) and maybe this story could’ve gone to a better place.
Logan Marshall-Green’s tale of self-discovery is made rich by little other than the equally, but intentionally unsure performance by Ethan Hawke.
Adopt A Highway Review [SXSW 2019]