“First Reformed” last year provided Ethan Hawke with an actor’s dream role in terms of character depth and meaningful conflicts — even if the Academy was practically the only awards-nominating body that failed to notice what he did with it. “Adopt a Highway” provides a different kind of challenge, the hopeless uphill struggle type, in which there’s no substance whatsoever to the blank-slate protagonist or the few, underdeveloped situations he gets into.
“Upgrade” actor Logan Marshall-Green’s debut feature as writer-director is one of those baffling cases in which a project somehow made it to completion without anyone daring to mention that the script barely qualified as a narrative outline, let alone as camera-ready. Not every talented actor is also a born writer. All evidence here suggests that Marshall-Green needs a strong collaborator — or maybe just someone else’s screenplay — the next time he gets behind the camera. Hawke is stuck trying to flesh out a wide-eyed naif somehow not at all seasoned by more than 20 years in prison. Still, this paper-thin drama will be able to leverage his name toward some post-SXSW exposure, even if it’s likely to make as slight an impression in commercial terms as it does emotionally.
Russell Pine is finally getting out of the slammer after serving more than two decades for selling marijuana, his third offense under California’s now-defunct “three strikes” law — the kind of crime that barely qualifies as one anymore, and would now be met with much-reduced punishment. He’s awkward and innocent as a puppy in Hawke’s performance, a bit of a stretch given that Russ was a 23-year-old who’d presumably been around the block at least a bit when his prison stint began. Ex-cons are frequently under-equipped to deal with the life on the outside; 2001 indie “Virgil Bliss” managed to render credible a newly freed protagonist almost as guileless as this one. But that film placed its hero in a palpable real world of potential temptations and exploiters, while “Adopt” leaves everything barely sketched in, including Russ’ saintly man-child.
Without apparent friends or family to revisit, vocational training or any other resources, Russ takes what the state offers to satisfy his probation terms — a motel room-like apartment and employment at a fast-food joint under manager Becca (Diane Gaeta). He was absent from society just long enough to have never been on a computer (another logical stretch), learning the basic ropes just enough at a nearby Internet cafe to discover his beloved father died some years back. (But why wouldn’t he have already been informed of this, since it seems the two weren’t estranged?)
One night after work, he hears cries from a parking-lot dumpster, and opens it to discover an infant inside. Various factors dissuade him from immediately alerting the authorities, resulting in several days as caretaker in which he becomes very attached to wee Ella, as an attached note has identified her.
But this one-man-and-a-baby relationship that looks to be the film’s pat and precious, if undeniably winsome, focus comes to an abrupt end, and the rest of the movie feels like a series of trial runs for other narrative ideas that quickly dead-end. Russ decides he’ll return to his Wyoming hometown, meeting a distraught if hard-boiled woman (Elaine Hendrix) on the Greyhound en route. Still, nothing comes of that, nor really of his arrival in Casper. And finally, like the laziest mainstream escapism of decades ago, “Adopt a Highway” ultimately solves its problems in deus ex machine fashion.
There are some amiable support turns, albeit in roles so inconsequential and thinly conceived that they amount to little more than cameos. Hendrix is a little too showy in a part that feels drop-kicked from some off-Broadway imitation of “Bus Stop.” It’s dismaying to watch Hawke, having just been widely seen at his mature-actor best, reduced to a shaggy and cute, hobbit-like character, full of wonder. If the film itself had a more magical-realist air, Russell’s ingenuousness might be charming. But here it seems, like much else in “Adopt a Highway” — whose title itself is just one more non sequitur — not so much an organic effect as the result of an inexperienced writer who expects his actors to provide all the character dimensionality, and a director unaware that they’ll need help with that.
Apart from a shift to a wider aspect ratio once Russ leaves California, there’s little stylistic definition to the assembly, which is generally competent in all departments but lacks an assertive personality. While the score by Jason Isbell of Athens, Ga., band Drive-By Truckers will command some interest for indie rock fans, there’s a rather inexplicable decision to let the music overwhelm the dialogue at several junctures. That’s hardly a plus in a movie where we’re anxious not to miss any scrap of information that might provide ballast for a story that’s barely there.