SXSW Review: ‘ADOPT A HIGHWAY’ a tender journey of a man trying to find love, family
Preston Barta // Features Editor
ADOPT A HIGHWAY
AUSTIN – There’s a point in our lives where we embark on a soul-searching journey to find meaning to our existence. Some take their curiosity to find meaning by traveling around the world, reading a good book, or watching a fantastic film. They can have the power to inspire us to go out and do big things, much like Logan Marshall-Green’s impressive directorial debut, ADOPT A HIGHWAY.
In ADOPT A HIGHWAY, we follow Russell Millings (Ethan Hawke) as he’s just been released from a two-decade-long prison sentence. With no friends or family to reunite with, the state offers him a motel room and employment at a burger joint. He washes dishes and does all the janitorial duties. One evening when taking out the trash, he hears the faint cries of an infant coming from the restaurant’s dumpster. He discovers a baby girl inside a handbag wearing an angel dress with a note that says, “Her name was Ella,” attached. Unsure of what to do, Russell takes her back to his motel to care for the child.
As paper thin as the plot may seem, there’s so much for audiences to gather between the lines Marshall-Green writes. It’s a quiet exploration of a man lost in a world he no longer recognizes. It speaks volumes about today’s prison system and how the state fails to help those in need. But it also says a lot about those longing for a sense of purpose.
At the film’s start, we see Russell gathering his belongs from his prison cell on the day he’s being released. You can see the fear in his eyes because he knows to survive out there is going to be much more difficult than behind bars. He’s ushered to the prison front and drifts along like a kindergartener on their first day of school. Within the first five minutes, Hawke captures Russell’s pain and confusion with few words.
It’s only after Russell takes baby Ella do we get the full picture of him. He hasn’t a clue how to care for Ella, as seen in two rather humorous scenes. In one moment, Russell gives Ella about 15 mini half-and-half cartons to drink. In another, he’s schooled by a grocery store employee (a side-splitting Loni Love) on what bottles and formula to buy.
After which he runs back home where Ella is left alone, dropping his grocery items on his way. It’s a profound sequence that causes the audience to wrestle with whether or not Russell is fit to parent the child. It is considered kidnapping to not notify the police, but you can’t help but want him to have Ella. Russell is so desperately searching for love like a lost puppy looking for a home that it’s heartbreaking.
This is further illustrated when Russell meets a flustered woman named Diane (Elaine Hendrix) on a bus. The two strike up a conversation after they stop at a gas station and Russell doesn’t have enough money for chips. Russell and Diane bond over mayo-and-mustard sandwiches and talk about their histories and zodiac signs. There’s a spark there, but the road has to end somewhere. You undoubtedly want to reach out through the screen and hug Russell. He’s a well-drawn, sensitive and delicate character, and I suspect Hawke will earn much-deserved awards recognition for his portrayal.
For his first film as a director, Marshall-Green (most recently seen in UPGRADE) takes command like he’s been at the helm for years. It’s a quiet and reflective film like something from Andrew Haigh (LEAN ON PETE and 45 YEARS). As Marshall-Green noted during his post-screening Q&A at the South by Southwest Film Festival, he wanted to challenge himself by crafting an honest work that is completely devoid of violence and sex. By simply opening up the complicated soul of an individual and holding up a mirror to society, we get an emotionally resonant and lyrical tale delivered in the most compassionate of tones.
ADOPT A HIGHWAY screened at SXSW on March 10 and 11. It has its final encore screening on Wednesday, March 13 at 5:30 p.m. CT at the Rollins Theatre at the Long Center. Visit sxsw.com for all information. Release date is to be determined. (Personally, I hope A24 adopts it.)