The opening minutes of Adopt A Highway, the directorial debut of Logan Marshall-Green (the star of last year’s Upgrade), opens with a stark look at what American prisoners face as they’re released. Russell (Ethan Hawke) is at the end of his 21-year sentence, busted for an ounce of marijuana back in California’s three-strikes days. He is slowly shuffled through the prison’s administrative system, given his belongings in a sack, and gently but firmly pushed out onto the street. There he stands, a man from another decade, facing a world he barely recognizes with no one and nothing to provide him with any kind of guidance.
Russell doesn’t want trouble and he keeps his head down, spending his days working as a dishwasher at a fast food burger restaurant. His nights are spent in the motel room he rents, eating burgers and watching TV shows that he barely understands, living in a constant state of anxiety, terrified that he’s going to slip up and inadvertently violate his parole. He’s got a sympathetic boss and a less-than-sympathetic parole officer, and he’s just … doing his best. But all of that changes when Russell finds a screaming, terrified baby abandoned in a dumpster. Without even really thinking about it, Russell takes the baby back to his room, and thus begins a strange and often lovely journey as Russell works his way back to becoming a fully realized person, rather than just another ghost drifting through the world.
It’s a lovely film, beautifully shot in that way that only fairly gifted filmmakers have, where they can take a landscape that is seemingly barren and dull and turn it into something remarkable. The atmosphere created by its cinematography is strengthened by terrific, evocative music from Jason Isbell (Drive-By Truckers, The 400 Unit). Similarly, Hawke does wonderful work as Russell, giving a subtle, nuanced performance as a man who seems to flinch at every roadblock, a quiet stammer to every word, walking through this complicated, familiar-yet-foreign landscape with a lumbering timidity. Really, the film is Hawke, with barely any screentime for anyone else, and that’s why it succeeds more than it fails. It’s an adept character piece, with Hawke inexplicably drawn to this baby as if it’s somehow a grasp at … not redemption, exactly, but more just a better chance at regaining whatever humanity was displaced by the last two decades.
Better yet, the baby isn’t a tool for redemption, but rather more like the sun rising on Russell’s new beginning. Her presence gives him the push to begin to revisit his past, to travel back to his beginnings and put his ghosts to rest while also finding new roads for his journey. And it’s an enjoyable trip, even though the film stumbles here and there. It’s a short film but sometimes suffers from drag, and its humor misses quite often. The humor that is peppered throughout the film serves a good purpose, to break up the otherwise serious tone, but it often feels like it’s working against Russell, joking about him instead of inserting him into humorous situations. It feels a bit too much like punching down, and never resonates as well as Marshall-Green likely wanted it to.
Despite its infrequent flaws, it’s a solid film that a veteran actor like Hawke makes into something even better. Adopt A Highway is a visually stirring, moodily atmospheric piece that succeeds more than it fails overall. But it’s his low-key, anxious performance that is thoroughly enjoyable, and the message of hopefulness that’s threaded throughout the film gives it a strong, positive vibe and makes for an enjoyable experience.