Review: ADOPT A HIGHWAY, Ethan Hawke Shines in a Hopeful but Inconsistent Film
One of the many things that has always boggled my mind about the USA is the prison system, and its treatment of felons, from privatization of prisons, to not being able to vote upon release, to the 'three-strike-rule' that seemed bent on keeping people within the system as oppose to encouraging reform and reintroduction to society. Logan Marshall-Green's directorial debut Adopt a Highway is a quiet and subtle tale of one such person caught in the system.
Russell (Ethan Hawke), age 44, has just been released from prison after 21 years; while the charge was minor (he had an ounce of pot he was intenting to sell), he committed this crime during the years of California's three-strike-law. As this was his third offense, even a minor one, he was sent away. Having no family or friends left, and with three months probation left that limits both where he can go and what he can do, he takes a menial job at a fast food restaurant, and lives at a motel.
Russell is just trying to keep himself together and out of trouble, until one night, he finds an abandoned baby in the dumpster behind his work. He takes the baby back to his motel room, where after dialing 911, he makes the split-second and inadvisable decision not to take her to the authorities. He spends the next two days looking after little Ella, learning the basics of feeding and washing, but he knows he can't keep her, and so he takes whatever time and joy he can with her, before eventually contacting the authorities.
Certainly, having an actor as good as Hawke in the lead takes the film to deeper and richer places than it would have otherwise in lesser hands. Hawke shows us a man whose life was ruined by a few minor mistakes and a terrible system, someone so beaten down that he can barely ask for even the smallest things that would improve his life, and who can barely even look people in the eye. Lost and alone, he can only focus on one moment at a time, with no idea of what will happen once he's finally free of the system.
This abandoned baby becomes the focus Russell desperately needs: the unconditional love babies give to those who look after them is immesurable, especially to one without any love or much kindness for as long as Russell. Marshall-Green allows Hawke all the space he needs to convey Russell's shyness, his ineptitude, and his immediate and fierce love for the thing as abandoned and lost as he is. Marshall-Green also makes sure Hawke has a strong supporting cast, from Betty Gabriel as a social worker, to Elaine Hendrix's odd woman he meets on a bus, to comedian Loni Love's kindly store worker who tells him what kind of bottles to buy.
The heart of the story is strong; however, there are a few too many details that are a little too far-fetched that take away from its strength. It's hard to believe that Russell, even in prison for that long, would have literally no idea how to use the internet; that, given what we're told and the conclusion, he wouldn't know what happened to his parents; and that he would not know immediately that keeping an abandoned baby was a bad idea.
The film does take some time to show how this particular law (since changed somewhat but still the law in several states) ruins the lives of those who could otherwise have been helped and kept out of the prison system, but seems to abandon the realities of that by the end; not that a relatively happy ending isn't nice, but in this case it felt rushed (even for a film with an 80-minute running time).
While we're asked to suspend a bit too much disbelief for the story to be consistent, Hawke's performance, as well as great music by Jason Isbell, are compelling enough to carry it through. Marshall-Green shows some directing talent (and hopefully will have a stronger script next time), with a (unsurprisingly) sharp eye for actors in the frame and letting them breathe and move in the story.
Adopt a Highway is now in theatres, VOD, and DVD in the USA, from RLJE Films.