Adopt a Highway Movie Review
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Ethan Hawke has a proficiency to make small films feel needed, to feel important. Without saying much at all, Adopt a Highway from writer-director Logan Marshall-Green, effectively highlights several topics owing to Hawke’s outstanding performance.
The “Three Strikes and You’re Out” laws introduced in the 90’s ruined many lives. The law required that felony-level convictions with two prior offenses result in a lifetime prison sentence. California’s implementation went further to include misdemeanor-level crimes. Russell Millings (Hawke) is an unfortunate casualty of this law. The film opens to Millings having completed twenty years for possession of an ounce of marijuana with the intent to distribute. The absurdity not lost on him. Millings is given his belongings – old clothes, a set of keys, and a watch – and released to acclimate to a society he no longer recognizes.
Not much is said in these opening scenes. Hawke is disheveled, his body hangs, and he can’t seem to look anyone in the eye. His quiet performance assisted by Jason Isbell’s score to convey the uncertainty of Millings’ situation. The ex-convict is inadequately prepared to handle society’s advancements. Cell phones, web engines, and e-mail are foreign languages. The point being, beyond given temporary housing and job prospects, incarceration without preparation is failing these men. Luckily for Millings, the supervisor at the restaurant where he washes dishes, and the owner of a nearby internet cafe are both empathic to his ignorance.
Late one evening while dumping garbage, Millings hears the cries of an infant coming from a nearby dumpster. He finds a baby discarded in a gym bag with a note reading, “Her name was Ella.” Disbelief and shock give way to paternal instinct as Millings brings the little girl to his motel. For a weekend, Millings provides food, shelter, and comfort for Ella, and in that time, forms a genuine bond with her. His well-meaning gesture eventually captures the attention of authorities – taking abandoned babies without informing the police is considered kidnapping – and Millings is forced to hand over Ella to child services. He volunteers to adopt the little girl, but he’s told of the improbability.
One detour leads to a new journey. Millings, aware of the potential crime he’s committed, packs his belongings and catches a bus to visit his deceased parents. The cinematography soars with breathtaking views of the vibrant Southwest as Millings begins to surmount his timid nature. He makes friends with an agitated traveler named Diane (Elaine Hendrix) by offering her a mustard and mayonnaise sandwich. They bond on the road until their roads separate, but she invites him to look her up someday.
Millings’ journey ends with those old keys from his prison belongings, unlocking a touching farewell from his father and a gift to begin life anew. What he does with his future runs contradictory to common themes where the protagonist self-sabotages, a refreshing change-of-pace. Logan Marshall-Green instead chooses to leave all the irony on our complex system of laws. Adopt a Highway is an unusual redemption tale made intensely better by the filmmaker’s disciplined focus on the commanding performance of his lead. Hawke, in his straightforward and unassuming way, simply makes everything better.