SXSW Review: ‘Adopt A Highway’ Finds Humanity in Second Chances

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Last year’s Upgrade starring Logan Marshall-Green made its debut at SXSW. A year later, Logan Marshall-Green returns to SXSW, but instead of being in front of the camera, he steps behind the lens and into the director’s chair with his directorial debut, Adopt a Highway. This small film stars veteran Ethan Hawke as ex-convict Russell Millings who is released from prison after the state repeals its Three Strike Law. After twenty-one years behind bars, he makes his transition back into civilian life, unfamiliar with the changes society has undergone in his absence. One night at work, he finds a baby in a dumpster, and decides to take it upon himself to take care of her in the face of breaking his parole.

Narratively speaking, the film is all about second chances. Russell is a freed man who has been released into society with his life in pieces. Displaced and in isolation, he tries to pick them up as he finds everything has been taken from him. When he finds Elle, the abandoned baby, he has the opportunity to give her a second chance he never had. The two, one with her whole life in front in her and the other trying to find something moving forward, end up with a shared kinship through their experiences. The pairing of innocents on the opposite end of the age spectrum gives the film something to grip onto; as events transpire that challenge them, you hope both parties end up with the second chance they knowingly deserve.

The strongest element of Adopt a Highway is how well it depicts humanity through Russell. For a person who has been wronged by society, it’s easy to see how he could feel slighted, but instead of making him exact revenge, Marshall-Green makes him a man of sincere compassion. He is a genteel and righteous man who just wants to do right and move forward. The actions Russell takes elicits waves of sympathy as you admire his generosity, revere his selflessness, and lament his dejection. 

The vehicle for all these emotions is carried on the back of Ethan Hawke’s well nuanced performance. The long time actor has proven his range, but here he goes for subtly, making  Russell humble and reserved while also being emotionally vulnerable. With minimal dialog we can see how Russell struggles to readjust. Connecting to the internet or using a cell phone for the first time are presented with humor at first, but through Hawkes subtleties, you begin to see a sad sense of helplessness. A man trying his best to do right, but struggling all the same is heartbreaking, and you can’t help but feel sympathetic to his character.

The film taps into the current of political debate surrounding criminal sentencing for low level offenses, and how something as lowly as a petty drug crime results in a mandatory minimum. Injustice in contrast with humanity and compassion is what evokes such a strong sense of human connection to Russell. He has an inherently good nature to him, but because of a mistake when he was younger, he had his life ripped out from under him. 

It’s a heart wrenching sight, and Marshall-Green’s direction really lets it speak for itself. There isn’t overt direction style here in the sense that it is overdone. While subject matter like this can topple over into sappy indie filmmaking, Marshall-Green exercises discipline in just letting things be as they are. It’s simple, clean, and efficient in showing pertinent elements, and when you have someone like Ethan Hawke doing most of the heavy lifting, it’s probably best not to interfere with that. But, for a first time directorial debut, it’s remarkable how something like this didn’t go wrong. It effectively builds up expectations, tears them down, stretches your heart strings, and rounds it out with an emotionally well-deserved payoff at the end. It also doesn’t hurt that Marshall-Green wrote the screenplay so bonus points there.

When you saw Marshall-Green as a robot cyborg kicking ass last year, I bet you didn’t think he had directing chops. And good ones at that. With the right balance of heart and empathy, he strikes a winning formula for a story about redemption in the face of extraneous circumstances. Adopt a Highway shows that despite all the things that can go wrong in our life and how dire it can get, with a little hope, humanity, and compassion, we can all get a second chance at life.