In Adopt a Highway, Ethan Hawke plays recently released convict trying to find his way in a world that’s changed drastically since his incarceration over twenty years earlier. An ounce of weed and California’s third strike rule is what did him in, and a Harry Potter book and compass are what got him through his sentence. He’s introverted, and not exactly the hardened criminal some might expect after such a lengthy sentence.
What follows is a story about life after prison and the twists and turns life throws unexpectedly and–just as unexpectedly–how quickly things can be taken away.
Adopt a Highway
Director: Logan Marshall-Green
Release Date: TBD
Russell Millings (Hawke) finds work as a dishwasher at a fast food restaurant, constantly scrubbing and spraying. He works double shifts whenever he can and goes the extra mile. He’s the perfect employee, his boss even tells him so. His hair and goatee are somewhere between Josh Brolin and The Dude. He shuffles his feet when he walks and doesn’t fully grasp sarcasm. His lack of social decorum is understandable given he’s spent nearly half his life in prison.
His sentence started at the time of the Internet boom. Imagine being locked away for so long that you don’t know how to get an email address. Imagine going to an Internet cafe (if you can find one) and having the employee take a selfie because “it’s not every day you meet someone who’s never been online.” He keeps his keys around his neck, and important documents in a fanny pack with a weed leaf embroidered on it.
The story itself is as wandering as the lead himself. After finding a baby in a dumpster after work one night, he plays caretaker for a few days until he’s forced to give her up to the proper authorities. When he decides to take a long bus trip to his family home in Wyoming, he meets a woman and forms a connection. Until a couple of days goes by and she gets off at her stop as he continues on. Finally home, he finds closure at the gravesite of his parents, and again in a letter written by his father in a safety deposit box.
Hawke’s performance as the unsure but hard-working Russ carries the film. Each other character, even with strong importance to his story, still only plays a minor role. There’s joy in his face when he’s taking care of a newborn, and pain in his face when she’s taken away. The sense of purpose is strongly felt. On the bus, he slowly opens up to Diane (Elaine Hendrix) at her constant behest. There’s hope in his eyes as she lays her head on his shoulder to sleep. Then, suddenly, they arrive at her stop. With a handshake and a thank you, she’s gone and his pain is back.
The abrupt endings to these relationships are hard to watch, given there’s always the turnaround moment in which one refuses to leave the other. At least for Hendrix, her single-use story felt empty and could have used more time for a better-established character and a stronger emotional feel for viewers. She comes onto the bus screaming and cursing and leaves quiet as a mouse.
The film’s end feels too magical for its story, but it proves that second chances are worth giving and starting over can be an option. Still, Hawke’s performance–coupled with Jason Isbell’s wonderful soundtrack–is a watch worth having. His brief time as a surrogate father provides humor as he learns how to care for a child, and genuine concern when she bumps her head. His inability to open up to a stranger is flipped as he stares longingly through the bus window. Adopt a Highway takes a beautiful look at a reformed man just trying to find his way in an unfamiliar world.