Ethan Hawke Shines Through the Grime as a Reformed Ex-Con in Adopt a Highway

A modest film about a good-hearted person who can’t catch a break

Two decades ago, under California’s then-active Three Strikes sentencing law, Russell Millings (Ethan Hawke) was sent to prison indefinitely for selling an ounce of marijuana. Finally free, Millings is trying his best to reintegrate with society.

He holds down a job washing dishes at a local restaurant, spends his evenings holed up in his motel room, and even manages to log onto the internet for the first time – a fact so outrageous to an employee at a local internet cafe that they promptly ask for a selfie. Then, while closing up one night, Millings finds a wailing baby in the dumpster. Uncertain of how to care for her and understandably gun-shy about police involvement, Millings tries to navigate his status as an ex-convict while caring for his newfound ward.

The pitfalls and failures of the criminal justice system would be a challenging subject for any filmmaker, let alone a first-time writer and director, but Logan Marshall-Green has a not-so-secret weapon at his disposal: Ethan Hawke. Hawke has spent his career playing wounded and withdrawn men, so it’s no small thing to say that Russell Millings is one of his best. Millings has very little knowledge of the outside world; as he struggles to make his way in society, Hawke drills deep into his character’s quiet resignation for a life that has gone off the rails. Even when Adopt a Highway loses its focus – a not-infrequent occurrence as the film progresses – Hawke is there to remind us that Millings needs as much empathy as we can muster.

Ultimately, Adopt a Highway is a modest film about a good-hearted person who cannot catch a break. Its slice-of-life approach may not work for all audiences – the ending is openly manipulative, albeit deeply satisfying as an audience member – but as is so often the case, watching Hawke work is its own reward. It’s hard to be mad at a thoughtful, feel-good movie that sets its sights on criminal justice reform, first-time filmmaker mistakes be damned.

Adopt a Highway

Narrative Spotlight, World Premiere

Monday, March 11, 6pm, AFS Cinema
Wednesday, March 13, 5:30pm, Rollins Theatre

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

SXSW Film Review: Midnight Shorts
Film Review: Midnight Shorts
The best of the fest's late night micro-horrors

Jenny Nulf, March 20, 2019

SXSW Film Review: <i>Amazing Grace</i>
Film Review: Amazing Grace
Two nights with the incomparable Aretha Franklin

Michael King, March 17, 2019

More by Matthew Monagle
Matthew Monagle’s Top 10 Films of 2021
Matthew Monagle’s Top 10 Films of 2021

Dec. 17, 2021

Del Toro-endorsed creature feature is stylish but empty

Oct. 29, 2021


SXSW Film 2019, Logan Marshall-Green, Ethan Hawke

One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Behind the scenes at The Austin Chronicle

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle