Ethan Hawke Reaches Moving Heights in ‘Adopt a Highway’

In “Adopt a Highway,Ethan Hawke plays one of those quiet, low-tempered souls who become instantly likeable because their adversities could so easily crush them, but don’t. This directorial debut by actor Logan Marshall-Green does not require a massive budget or flashy tricks in the writing. It thrives on being simply about its main character and his journey. It’s a rather warm film, full of empathy. 

Hawke is Russell Millings, a convict who served over 20 years in jail for carrying an ounce of marijuana. Now free he makes his way to California, sets up in a cheap motel and gets a job at a burger joint. Adjusting to the outside world is tricky since Russel’s entire youth was basically spent behind bars, even telling anyone where he’s from generates anxiety. The simple task of setting up an email account and using the internet is nearly alien to him. Then one night while throwing out the trash Russell finds a baby girl crying in a dumpster, the only clue to her identity is a note revealing her name to be Elle. He quietly takes the baby back to his room and starts caring for her. What follows tests Russell’s ability to cope with freedom considering he remains a man on probation, while developing a paternal attachment to Elle. 

There has been a gradual dismissal of traditional plotting in some recent, lower budget films. “Adopt a Highway” continues this trend by following Russell instead of just placing him inside some calculated storyline. This is quite the arthouse film from Blumhouse Productions, best known for their B-movie franchises and higher-grade genre films from Jordan Peele. Marshall-Green himself starred in last year’s guilty pleasure from the studio, “Upgrade,” as a paraplegic whose ability to walk is restored by an implanted chip. His technique here is warm and patient, his screenplay full of sparse dialogue which only becomes more revelatory near the end. Russell is a man disconnected from the world after having come of age in prison. Hawke’s performance is effectively slow in a welcome contrast to his absorbing turn as a radicalized preacher in last year’s great “First Reformed.” His Russell struggles to articulate sentences, hesitates before walking out the door and barely has the capacity to open up to people.

After finding Elle, Russell gets in touch with the kind of affection missing for years in prison. These moments have an endearing, moving quality as he struggles to calm her crying and ventures out into the supermarket to get the appropriate baby bottles. There’s some warm humor in these scenes as well as random people such as a store worker and even police officers give Russell advice on raising a baby. In one of the film’s best scenes Elle takes a fall and in near despair Russell holds her, endlessly apologizing. It’s easy to sense a real bond growing between this man and the baby, who represents for him a love that links to a later development in the story. 

But Marshall-Green isn’t making a movie just about a man finding an abandoned baby. The story will take on another dimension and Russell will find himself riding in a bus, connecting with a woman named Diane Spring (Elaine Hendrix), who also appears to be on the run from another life. She senses he’s a nice man, aloof for reasons he can’t reveal just yet. In a conventional movie they would turn into some kind of date movie romance, but Marshall-Green wants the natural feel of two people in the real world actually meeting. Sure she will leave Russell the information on where to find her when it’s her turn to get off the bus, but whether he will actually do it is the real question. 

Marshall-Green’s potential to make some good films that stand out is evident with this debut because he has made something empathetic without being bombastic. “Adopt a Highway” is subtle but never boring. Hawke’s performance pulls you in with its air of a broken man slowly finding his footing. If there is an aim to the story aside from the portrait of a character, it may be that Russell defines the convict we rarely see in movies. He is a victim of the system in a sense, having been given a draconian sentence for something today is all too common (especially in California). His life was snatched away, now he has it back but walks and talks like a man whose personal growth was deeply stunted. Elle, and later Diane, seem to be the first confirmation that he can find connections in this world. If Marshall-Green refuses to turn it into a more conventional, point by point movie, it’s because the film plays true to life. Our existences can be abruptly changed, when we’re used to being alone finding new bonds with people can be disorienting and even frightful. Few things go according to plan, that’s a part of this film’s charm.

“Adopt a Highway” is a small and notable debut for Marshall-Green. He proves he can write material of subtle creativity, while getting a performance out of a longtime star like Hawke in which he completely disappears. Russell becomes endearing because there are countless others like him wandering around the world. 

Adopt a Highway” opens Nov. 1 in select theaters.