'Adopt a Highway' Review: An Honest, Open-Road Ballad About Life's Unpredictability [SXSW]

'Adopt a Highway' Review: An Honest, Open-Road Ballad About Life's Unpredictability [SXSW]

Actor Logan Marshall-Green’s directorial debut Adopt A Highway feels tailor-made for Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival. It has nothing to do with horror, mind you, despite Blumhouse’s production banner. What could double as an acoustic country ballad whispers a nomad folk tale about one simple task: getting by. Indie bloodlines run through Marshall-Green’s jailhouse poetry without overly romanticized narratives, more appropriately about passing moments than revelations. It’s about muttered dialogue, directionless trajectories, and a most relatable assessment of life not going as expected.

In other words, humanity as we know it.

We encounter Ethan Hawke as inmate Russell Millings on the day of his release after twenty-plus years locked away. His offense? Strike number three after getting busted with an ounce of marijuana. Now free, he works hard to acclimate back into society as a dishwasher at Tony’s Hamburgers who can only afford modest motel accommodations. He has zero internet knowledge (to Jorge Diaz’s humorous disbelief), deceased parents, and only a small pack of belongings to his name – until he finds baby “Ella” screeching in the dumpster behind work. What’s a loner ex-con to do? Start an unexpected journey down one of life’s many detours.

Adopt A Highway charts unique but refreshing paths by tracing character outlines with earnest realism, speaking volumes while mumbling words. As someone who blasts Anna And The Apocalypse lyrics like “…no such thing as a Hollywood ending,” Marshall-Green’s shaping of Russell hits so touchingly close to home. In mainstream films, Russell would’ve nurtured baby Ella until a climactic ruling at the film’s end; in Adopt A Highway, Ella’s stay represents just one pitstop that redirects Russell’s inner GPS. We’re often convinced to look for immense, epiphanic meaning in any event, but that’s not always the case (nor cause for derailment).

Like Russell, we are defined by overall journeys which wouldn’t be possible without being diverted by milestones along the way – good or bad. How easy it would be to focus on the negatives as momentum halts when child services (Betty Gabriel) hastily claim Ella, but Russell’s reaction is to move forward, shift course toward a new destination, and keep progressing. It’s not how Lifetime movies would have us believe, but there’s something so comforting about watching Russell’s character reclaim his identity amidst imperfect uncertainty. Sometimes life just…happens.

Enter Diane Spring (Elaine Hendrix), who’s visibly distraught and benefitted by Russell’s kindness. He offers the woman a mustard and mayonnaise sandwich – appropriately odd in the scenario, but his gracious demeanor beams true. Hawke’s brilliance in understatement begs for our empathy no matter if he’s scrubbing fast food floors, chatting with newborn Ella on her level, or nervously connecting with a cute girl during his travels. He evokes the essence of a curious child experiencing life for the first time, forced into self-responsibility as a released inmate abandoned by rigorous structures that previously defined two decades of routines. He’s stunted by isolation, overwhelmed by experience, and brushed away by facilitative organizations that once yanked him from society for something that’s now legal in multiple states.

Hawke’s timid yet powerful performance devours sympathy as fuel on altruistic levels of rediscovery and reprogramming. Watch as he shuffles out of his prison cell, darting eyes like an animal freed from captivity. He only wants to do right and live generously, and he never complains about eating condiments between bread as meals. Russell is shy and wounded, but never deterred.

Jason Isbell’s open-road score blends with Marshall-Green’s frames to find beauty in perspective nothingness. Fair warning, Adopt A Highway won’t be every viewer’s speed given its breezy narrative flows that bounces around Russell’s “random” interactions. Marshall-Green’s story isn’t about getting the girl, or saving the day, or waiting for karma to swing back in full. Travel buses and bare accommodation walls aren’t thrilling to behold, and despite a sub-80-minute length, the Duplass-influenced aesthetics won’t captivate all cinematic tastes. It needs to be said because as my opening remarks indicated, you’re reading about a film that blasts film festival vibes on high – but it’s also a charming source of intrigue as far as arthouse tastes abide.

Adopt A Highway is as naked, vulnerable, and warmly fulfilling a debut as you can ask for. Pacing beats could undergo minimal tweaking, but Ethan Hawke’s performance as a convict spat from America’s prison system is equal parts tragic and triumphant. Twenty years lost, but not forgotten. This is a rare film that spirals upwards despite grief and depression being much easier motivational fruits to pluck, and that’s what makes Logan Marshall-Green’s breakout feature such a confident rambler’s ballad written from the unchained heart. It’s patient, forgiving, and effortlessly feel-good.

/Film Review: 7.5 out of 10

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