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In Adopt a Highway — from first-time writer-director and veteran actor Logan Marshall-Green — Ethan Hawke’s character Russell is adjusting to life on the outside after a 20-year prison sentence. The film is a character study of an isolated man existing on the margins of mainstream society who is struggling to find his way home to himself.
While taking out the trash at his fast food job one evening, Russell hears a baby crying from inside the dumpster and rescues her. Poignantly, she is dressed in a Sunday Easter-style dress and carries a note that says, “Her name was Ella,” as whoever put her there expected she wouldn’t be found alive.
It’s another star turn for Hawke that lets him flex several decades’ worth of acting chops in the kind of performance we are not used to seeing from him. Despite the film’s choppy and tonally dissonant storytelling, the actor’s Russell is understated, quiet and powerfully conveys the character’s internal struggle to build a new life in a world he doesn’t quite understand yet. In an ensemble cast of small roles where his character is the only one with a film-length arc, Hawke’s performance quite literally carries the movie.
We eventually learn that the severity of Russell’s sentence for holding an ounce of marijuana was triggered by California’s now-discontinued three-strikes law. Naturally afraid that explaining he didn’t immediately turn the found child over to the police will ruin his pristine record during his precious few last weeks of parole, Russell fumbles through the basics of caring for a newborn. (It’s worth mentioning that the “performances” Marshall-Green gets out of the twin actors playing the baby, Savannah and Everly Sucher, are quite special.) Russell is utterly inept — he feeds Ella little cups of coffee creamer and leaves her dangerously close to the edge of a bed — and watching him further endanger this already traumatized kid frightens almost to the level of a thriller.
Children are easy storytelling devices for summoning instant empathy from an audience, particularly when it comes to the trope of the emotionally unavailable guy whose heart is awakened by suddenly becoming the caretaker of an abandoned baby. But in 2019, a grown man — even a formerly incarcerated one who doesn’t have an email account — not knowing even the slightest thing about taking care of a child feels dated. And establishing the middle-aged black female store clerk (a memorable one-scene appearance from comedian Loni Love) as the fountain of wisdom when it comes to everything baby-related certainly doesn’t bring anything new to the table, either.
The substance of this pic is Russell’s desire for connection and his simultaneous incompetence when it comes to social skills. He speaks barely above a whisper for most of the movie. His parents — with whom he was apparently close and who died while he was in jail — are now deceased. When he meets a vivacious super-emotional blonde (charmingly played by Elaine Hendrix) on a bus trip to his Wyoming hometown, his idea of a romantic gesture is making her a mayo and mustard sandwich as she painstakingly pulls words out of him. It’s not as frightening as the moments with the baby, but it’s just as cringeworthy.
That said, Marshall-Green assembled a strong overall team for his debut, and it pays off. Jason Isbell’s original music hums and roars at all the right moments through the film, adding nicely to the depth of Hawke’s performance. Nathan Ruyle’s sound design follows suit. The opening sequence uniquely conveys Russell’s backstory through a combination of voiceover from Bill Clinton speaking about the 1994 Crime Bill that included a federal “three strikes” provision and an artful display of newspaper headlines from the time (the film’s title quietly pops out from these clippings).
Ultimately, one can’t help but empathize with and root for Hawke’s Russell, and that’s an achievement. But even though he has cleaned up his appearance, raised the volume of his voice and cashed in on the money his father left him by the end of the movie, Russell has failed to forge a real connection with another adult, or even to connect with his own emotions. Marshall-Green seems to want us to leave the theater with that heartwarming feeling, but based on what we actually see unfold onscreen, the movie ultimately registers as a tragedy about another man who tries but fails at opening his heart.
We already know that we live in a world that expects little of men when it comes to emotional development; now we’ve seen yet another well-intentioned movie that only adds to the problem.
Writer-director: Marshall Logan-Green
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Elaine Hendrix, Diane Gaeta, Mo McCrae, Chris Sullivan, Nate Mooney, Jorge Diaz, Christopher Heyerdahl, Anne-Marie Johnson, Betty Gabriel
Producers: Jason Blum, Ethan Hawke, Ryan Hawke, Greg Gilreath, Adam Hendricks, John H. Lang
Executive producers: Donald Tang, Couper Samuelson, Zach Locke
Director of photography: Pepe Avila del Pino
Editor: Claudia Castello
Casting: John McAlary
Costume designer: Romy Itzigsohn
Production designer: Emma Rose Meade
Sound designer: Nathan Ruyle
Music: Jason Isbell
Venue: SXSW (Narrative Feature Competition)
Sales: ICM Partners