Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 16, 2019)
Since its founding in 2000, the Blumhouse production company mainly became known via horror flicks like Paranormal Activity and Get Out. However, they occasionally dip their toes into more straight dramatic fare like the acclaimed Whiplash, and 2019’s Adopt a Highway veers into that lane as well.
Due to “three strikes” laws, Russ Millings (Ethan Hawke) serves 21 years in prison even though he got arrested for possession of merely an ounce of marijuana. When he finally emerges from jail during the Obama administration, he finds himself in a world he doesn’t understand, as he struggles to adapt to changes like the Internet.
Russ works as a dishwasher at a fast food joint, and one night he discovers a baby abandoned in a dumpster. Russ experiences conflicting emotions but decides to help the infant as a shot at his own personal redemption.
25 years ago, Hawke seemed destined to become an “A”-list star, but that never quite materialized. While he certainly enjoyed a solid career, he didn’t turn into the headline box office draw one might’ve expected back in the 90s.
While Hawke’s bank account would’ve benefited from superstardom, as an actor, I suspect he feels fine with his lot. Hawke can choose pretty much any kind of project he desires without fears of how it’ll impact his commercial standing, so he takes on a pretty wide variety of roles.
Some of these projects succeed better than others, and Adopt falls on the weaker side of the fence. Though the project shows glimmers of life, it seems too thin to sustain itself.
That comes as a surprise, for the film runs a mere 81 minutes. It shouldn’t take much to fill such a brief span with compelling events and character moments.
However, Adopt comes with a wafer-thin plot and characterizations that don’t boast much depth. Russ dominates, of course, but we never get a firm grasp on what makes him tick.
Some of this makes sense, as Adopt gives us a lead on the Gump side of the street. The film makes it clear that Russ lacks much brainpower, so while it doesn’t paint him as completely devoid of mental skills, it becomes obvious that he struggles cognitively.
At times this choice creates drama, as Russ’s impairments ensure that he struggles more with basic life skills than otherwise might occur. Of course, the fact Russ spent decades in jail stunted his growth as well, but it seems apparent that his low IQ forms the most obvious impediment.
This connects back to the thin nature of the story, though, for virtually all of the tale’s drama stems from the bad choices Russ makes due to his cognitive deficits. Add 20 IQ points to the role and we don’t have a movie, as Russ’s problematic decisions prompt virtually every plot point.
If you consider that Adopt boasts a true narrative, that is. While Russ’s attachment to Ella becomes the most important story element, it doesn’t dominate the movie, so other aspects of Russ’s life come to the fore.
Again, Russ’s choice to take in Ella ultimately motivates all that follows. Still, this feels like a gimmick, so don’t expect the Ella theme to become much more than a MacGuffin.
When Adopt works, it does so mainly due to Hawke’s performance. He doesn’t overdo Russ’s intellectually limitations, and he creates a fairly endearing role, albeit one whose stupid decisions frustrate.
I just wish Adopt came with a stronger sense of story and character. However, the film tends to lack real development, and its nearly magical ending creates additional issues. The film doesn’t flop, but it feels more like a sketch than a full-blooded work.