“Her name was Ella.”
That phrase is written on a scrap of paper that Russell Earl Millings (Ethan Hawke) finds in a dumpster behind the burger joint where he works. Accompanying the paper is a crying baby in a duffel bag.
The “was” is what breaks my heart about this scene from Logan Marshall-Green’s remarkable directorial debut “Adopt a Highway.” It’s as if the writer thinks she can wipe out the child’s existence with one word, one action. But we know the truth: The child exists, and no amount of looking the other way can stop that.
The scene makes us uncomfortable, and it should. But how many times have we done the same thing? How many times have we turned away from those less fortunate than us? Witnessing suffering is uncomfortable, and we think that, if we turn away, the suffering will also vanish. But the suffering still exists even if we choose to ignore it.
One of the many strengths of “Adopt a Highway” is how it looks straight into the suffering and doesn’t turn away for nearly 80 minutes. We see the lives of people – an abandoned child, a homeless ex-con, a woman fleeing a bad breakup- rarely seen on the big screen or even in their own lives. It gives them a voice and a face.
Even more importantly, after staring into the void of suffering, the film dares to tell us that there is hope.
Hawke’s Millings is an ex-con just released from jail after 20 years for a drug distribution charge. As he tries to get back on his feet, he works at a fast food restaurant by day and struggles to learn modern technology by night. But then he finds Ella in the dumpster.
The Ella sequences are a deceptively small part of “Adopt a Highway,” but they form the film’s heart and soul. There is something undeniably tender about two people rejected by society rescuing each other. A little on-the-nose? Sure. But it works.
The reason it works is Hawke. This is a marvelously internal performance by the actor- one that finds its power not in words, but in facial expressions and small gestures. Watch how much he conveys with just his face in a scene where he learns his dad died while he was in prison. Or consider the various nervous tics he displays when being interviewed by the Department of Family Services.
Hawke is in every scene, and the entire film rests on the shoulders of his performance. Thankfully, he delivers. This isn’t his showiest performance, but it might be one of his best.
Hawke has found an excellent partner in actor Marshall-Green who is making his directorial debut with “Adopt a Highway.” Marshall-Green displays a remarkable intuition about how to set up a scene and creates moments that, like Hawke’s performance, are quietly stunning in their own way.
Consider, for example, when Hawke is walking through a carnival and seems to almost be swallowed up by a sea of stuffed animals. Or the director’s tracking shot through a grocery store as a motor-mouthed clerk explains baby formula to Russell. Or the simple closeup of Russell and Ella’s feet walking on the beach.
These are not complicated shots, but they work because there is heart in them. The same could be said for the movie itself.
“Adopt a Highway” is a quiet film. There is little dialogue and little plot, which I imagine could be frustrating for some. And the film is predicated on difficult subjects like homelessness and child abandonment that could be rough for some viewers. (The film, while unrated, also has some R-rated language.)
But I don’t think any of that undoes the quietly profound work turned in by Marshall-Green. As directorial debuts go, “Adopt a Highway” shows incredible promise and, more importantly, a remarkably human knack for empathy.
“Adopt a Highway” never flinches and never turns away from the suffering, but it reminds us that, with love, kindness and a desire to do better, none of us are out of reach of redemption.
“The world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters,” Russell says as he reads from a “Harry Potter” book to Ella. “We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.”
A little on-the-nose? You bet. Does it work? Absolutely.
About the author
Stephen Dow is an award-winning journalist with a passion for film – not just consuming it, but thoughtfully and actively engaging with it. He believes that these modern myths have a lot to tell us about our world and ourselves. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.