Don’t be nervous about the Blumhouse Productions logo at the beginning of the film: “Adopt a Highway,” in which a newly released and totally rootless ex-con played by Ethan Hawke discovers a baby girl in a dumpster, doesn’t follow whatever path you might expect (or fear) that company to do with this premise. Hawke doesn’t harbor any “Sinister” intentions, nor is the baby possessed by demons — only colic. In fact, this sweet and simple little movie couldn’t be any further removed from the horrifying likes of “Get Out” and “Insidious.” The only scary thing about it might be the scene in which our hapless hero goes to an internet cafe and literally googles “Can I keep a baby if I find one?” Twenty years in jail can do a lot of damage to a man’s common sense.
Written and directed by Logan Marshall-Green, a successful Hollywood actor and noted Tom Hardy lookalike who was last seen in Blumhouse’s “Upgrade” last summer, “Adopt a Highway” is a gentle drama that’s often as clumsy and meandering as its title. Blink during the opening credits and you might not catch why the movie is named after a popular volunteer program. When Russell Millings (Hawke) was in high school, he made headlines for his public service work; when he was arrested for his third non-violent drug offense a few years later, the headlines changed.
The victim of a harsh “three strikes” rule that was struck down at some point during his two decades in a maximum-security prison, Russell stumbles out of the clink as a stunted adolescent with nothing but his name, a stopwatch, and a key around his neck. It’s as if he took a nap during the prime of his life only to wake up a couple of decades later to find that everyone who knew him has forgotten, and everyone who loved him has died. He’s at once both hardened enough to survive in jail, and too soft to survive outside of it. Russell’s face is sandwiched between the shaggy haircut of a young kid and the grizzled beard of an old man, and Hawke plays him with an “aw shucks” helplessness that makes it easy to pity him, but difficult to do anything else.
And then, after some mildly amusing fish out of water business — Russell adjusts to a dishwashing job, learns about email, and cracks a smile at an amusement park — he all but wanders into a John Ford movie when he hears a baby girl crying in the dumpster behind the restaurant where he works. She’s wearing an adorable frilly dress, and covered with a napkin that says: “Her name was Ella.” It’s a meet-cute between two people who lost their lives before they had ever really begun. It’s also the kind of drastic plot development that would be tough to swallow even if the scene weren’t set during the middle of a howling windstorm, but Marshall-Green isn’t much interested in subtlety; he’s staging a war of attrition over Russell’s future, and war seldom goes unnoticed. Is our man going to backslide into a bad place, or will he find a way to begin again?
It’s a question that Marshall-Green frames in curious and unexpected ways, even if the redemptive twang of Jason Isbell’s score appears to answer it from the opening scenes. Russell is an innocent man — perhaps not under the eyes of the law, but on a more profound level. He’s pure in a way that only seems possible in the movies, and even there it can feel like a stretch (it seems as if “Harry Potter” was the only book that Russell had in prison, and of course there’s a heartrending scene in which he reads Ella some of Dumbledore’s most relevant wisdom).
There’s never any risk that he’s going to do something violent or knowingly endanger the baby; the greater threat is that the law will take her away from him, as it has everything else in his life. It seems refreshing that the police enter the picture much sooner than you might expect, and even more refreshing that the authorities are personified by “Get Out” star Betty Gabriel. But the last stretches of “Adopt a Highway” are defined by an aimlessness that mirrors Russell’s own, and Marshall-Green’s 76-minute debut doesn’t build up enough speed to sustain itself once its hero ditches California for the open road. The story is too thin to bear the weight of Russell’s burden, and so — as though trying not to fall through the brittle surface of a frozen lake — Marshall-Green hurries in any direction in search of solid ground. And whatever safety he finds along the way (e.g. a welcome, manic cameo from “The Parent Trap” villain Elaine Hendrix) isn’t worth the heavier stuff he left behind.
That’s most noticeable towards the end, as “Adopt a Highway” is tied up with the kind of magical realism that would only seem remotely plausible in a film about a white guy. In a country where black men are incarcerated at five times the rate of white men, and entire generations continue to rot in jail (as Russell did) for non-violent drug offenses that are now legal in many states, it’s a major choice to point this story away from minorities. That isn’t to say that “Adopt a Highway” isn’t valid because of Hawke’s race, only that the film’s steady drumbeat of orchestrated pity can seem a bit misplaced, especially with a plot that hinges on unexpected dashes of privilege. Needless to say, there are other directors in the Blumhouse stable who might have addressed this disconnect more directly — who might have looked a bit harder at how smoothly paved the road is that leads towards Russell’s karmic restitution — and this would have been a richer movie as a result.
But Marshall-Green is just finding his way, and his debut is very much a first film. It doesn’t offer much evidence of a major director in the making, but it points toward a well-positioned talent with room to grow; someone who’s willing to spend his capital on the kind of character studies he’d never be able to make if not for starring in several Hollywood blockbusters. Modest and unfussy, “Adopt a Highway” fails to ground its fable-esque qualities in a deeper bedrock of emotional truth, but its best moments offer a tender glimpse at what people do with several decades of pent-up resentment. Where does all that bitterness go? When someone’s life is taken from them, is it possible to get it back, or give it to someone else? For Russell and Marshall-Green alike, the things they choose to sponsor might be more valuable than whatever they make (of) themselves.
“Adopt a Highway” premiered at SXSW 2019. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.