The action drama film “Paradise Highway,” written and directed by debutant filmmaker Anna Gutto, follows a fairly well-known plot and focuses more on its performances and delivery. The film follows a woman truck driver named Sally who gets caught up in a dangerous smuggling job that is involved with acts of child trafficking. Certain moments, mostly in the latter half, and the acting performances of Juliette Binoche, Hala Finley, and Morgan Freeman make “Paradise Highway” a worthwhile watch that effectively brings out desired emotions by its end.
‘Paradise Highway’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?
Sally, played by Juliette Binoche, is a woman trucker, hauling cargo from place to place while constantly staying connected with her friendly group of female truckers. The only surviving member of Sally’s family, her brother Dennis, has been serving time in prison for a series of petty crimes and is about to be released soon, within the upcoming week. While on her driving job, Sally visits Dennis in prison, hoping that it will be the very last time that she does so, and the siblings excitedly talk about what they will do once Dennis is out. However, right before leaving, Sally is handed a small piece of paper by her brother, and he even shows her a terrible bruise on his neck and torso when she refuses to take it. It becomes evident that a group inside the prison has been forcing Dennis to make Sally deliver illicit cargo from one place to another, and the woman has already done so a number of times to save her brother. If Sally refuses to do the jobs, though, Dennis is beaten up by the criminals, as he shows his sister at present, and the woman helplessly agrees.
Taking her truck over to the usual place of meeting, Sally sees a minivan drive up, and when she asks to see the cargo and looks into the vehicle, she sees a young girl of about twelve or thirteen inside. The woman handing over this cargo—the seller, so to speak—is a woman named Claire, and she tells Sally the instructions—she is to drive the young girl to a place across the state line and hand her over to a man named Paul. Sally obviously does not want to get involved in such delivery, knowing well enough that this is a case of child trafficking, but Claire’s threats about the danger this might pose for Dennis in prison make her finally agree. She hides the girl down by the front seats as she drives to the designated location, and when the girl tries to make conversation, she snaps her shut, saying that they are not to talk. Reaching the place after dark, Sally waits for Paul to arrive, who comes in a few minutes late, and just as she is talking to him to end her delivery trip, the man is fatally shot by the young girl. She had found a shotgun that Sally always kept inside the truck, and had gunned down her potential buyer. Paul tries to shoot back, but as Sally backs up the truck and flees the scene with the girl, the man dies from his wounds. With the young girl about to be trafficked still with her and potential charges of murder on her hand, Sally confusedly wonders what to do next as she drives her truck away.
How Does Sally Finally Open Up to the Young Girl?
Sally is terribly angry at the young girl initially for having landed her in such a mess, even though the girl keeps screaming and crying after shooting the man, making her trauma quite clear. The trucker takes a stop at a rest area, and when the girl makes it evident that she does not want to listen to orders, Sally ties her to the back of her cabin on her bed. She calls up Dennis on a burner phone that he uses inside the jail, and the brother is extremely scared about what the repercussions of the incident will be. He warns Sally to behave normally and keep the girl with her, for she is the only reason the criminals will not kill her. Over the next few rest stop areas, Sally sees the girl to be sick and then cares for her even though she is a bit rusty in sharing company. As the child recovers back to health, Sally drives her truck into a big rest area and asks the girl to stay hidden behind the curtains in the cabin whenever she is not inside. The girl agrees at first but then tries to leave, only to be confronted by a young woman who suspiciously calls out at her, and she runs away to hide herself at the back. Gradually the two make acquaintances and grow warmer with each other, the girl telling her name to be Leila. Sally presents the two options that they have in front of them at the moment—either to go to the police and confess everything and seek help, or to listen to Dennis’ instructions as he always knows what to do in times of trouble. Leila says that she does not trust the police, and Sally, too, obviously, shares a similar opinion of the authority, so they both decide to pursue the second option.
As the truck drives through picturesque countryside, young Leila seems to enjoy the journey, and she now starts following Sally’s instructions and helps her keep the cabin clean. Dennis gets in touch with his sister at this time and tells her to drive to their childhood home in Arkansas, where he would meet them, and Sally immediately feels uncomfortable at the idea. Dennis mentions their father has died, and nobody lives in their house anymore, which means that the woman had been abused by her father regularly. Sally does confirm this, later on, saying that Dennis would get in his way and take most of the beatings instead of his younger sister. She agrees to Dennis’ plan now, and drives to another big truck stop to hide from the authorities as well as the traffickers. During this time, a young boy of Leila’s age asks the girl to join him and his family for a friendly pancake party, but Leila declines the invitation, probably out of doubt (which is by now instinctive in her) that she might end up in trouble there. She cleans the cabin as Sally is out shopping, and finds a box full of Sally’s letters, through which she finds out that Dennis is actually a convicted criminal himself. When Sally returns, the two have a fight, and both are angry at each other. That evening, Sally wakes up to see a handwritten note left on her driving seat by the girl, claiming that she had left her as she did not want to mess her situation up anymore. As Leila sits in the young boy’s trailer chatting and playing with him, Sally frantically searches for her and then finally gives up.
During all this time, the police had found Paul’s dead body and had started an investigation into the matter. The case is also taken up by an elderly retired FBI agent named Gerick (Morgan Freeman), who very well knows the victim as he had earlier been part of his own investigation. Gerick had dedicated his post-retirement life to solving cases of teenage girls being trafficked and bringing such criminals to justice, and he had known Paul to be one of the buyers of these girls. The man is helped in this case by a rookie agent, Finley Sterling, who Gerick keeps referring to as Yale, as the partner is a graduate of the college. Together they try to find out who might have killed the sex offender, and Gerick tries his best to convince the police commissioner of the utmost priority of the case. The commissioner disagrees, though, saying that there is little evidence in the case and that child trafficking would go on as long as there were buyers. From witnesses of people in a neighborhood, the two investigators get to learn of a house where some girls had been kept and recently moved out, and visiting the place confirms their suspicion. It was indeed the place where trafficked girls were kept, and it even had a cage in its basement in which any disobedient girl was kept. From the murder crime scene, it had become evident to the police that the perpetrator had been in a semi-truck, and Gerick rightly guesses that the truck driver still had custody of the young girl (which is easy to guess as Paul had been found on the spot where he used to carry out the handover of young girls), and he moves to search for any unusual truckers in the rest areas.
On the other hand, Claire and her associate had also received news of Paul’s death and had instantly moved out of their safehouse (the same house that was later visited by the police). Moving around to avoid any suspicion, they were also searching for Leila and had finally got word of where she was from their network of sex workers and handlers. On the very same evening that Sally thinks she has lost Leila, both sides come to the truck stop looking for her, and Sterling also questions a drunk Sally, who denies knowing anything about the kidnapped girl. Two women working for Claire corner Sally and search her truck and then question her about where Leila is, when young Leila herself appears and manages to get hold of the shotgun from inside the truck. She rescues Sally from her attackers and makes her drive away from the rest stop, which Gerick also spots and calls out an order for local police to stop the truck. Sally and Leila somehow manage to hide by the side of the highway for the night, and also lose the police cars chasing after them.
The next morning, Leila asks Sally to drive them over to a nearby plot where she and her family used to live in their camping trailer, and Sally readily agrees. Leila has a heartbreak, though, as she sees that their trailer is missing from the place, and she tells her companion how her mother got addicted to drugs, how she had been sent over to group homes and how she escaped from there to be caught by traffickers. Sally, too, shares incidents from her own childhood, about her abusive father, and the two gradually seem to become the closest friends they have at the time. Understandably, Sally sees her own young self in Leila, only perhaps in a worse situation than she had been, and this is made all the more evident by “Paradise Highway” through a scene in which the images of their two faces almost come together on the truck window.
Since the beginning of the film, Sally seems to have kept herself aloof from her trucker friends’ group, but now, deciding to protect Leila in any way possible, she connects with her friends, who are ready to help at the get-go. She transfers Leila into one of their trucks and drives her own truck onto the highway, knowing that the police would come after her immediately. So it happens, but they do not find the girl in her truck and are about to let her go when Gerick talks to her privately and tells her that he works on his own and that she should contact him if she wants to keep the girl safe, even from the police. The veteran detective had spotted Leila’s drawings in a magazine inside Sally’s truck, and knew that the girl had been there but also realized that Sally was trying to protect her. He and Sterling drive their car around, following Sally’s truck from a safe distance, but are once again outsmarted by the woman when she sells off her trailer and drives away in just her truck. As the detectives had been tailing Sally’s vehicle from behind, they saw the now detached trailer sitting still and thought that Sally, too, was inside, while the woman had long gone. She takes Leila in her truck again and now drives to Arkansas to meet with Dennis.
After the siblings finally meet and share their moment together, Sally tells her brother that she wants to pay the full amount that is being asked of Leila and keep the girl behind with her. Although the brother is doubtful of her intentions at first, she mentions how she has sold off her trailer to afford the money and asks him to go negotiate such a deal with Claire. As evening falls, Dennis wants to take the girl to an old abandoned airport so that he can make a deal with the traffickers, but Sally refuses to let Leila go alone with him and joins them. While she is alone in the truck, though, she calls for help from her trucker friends and tells them the location of the meeting. Then she drives Dennis and Leila to the airport, and the three meet with Claire and her associate, who have also brought along a minivan full of young girls. As Dennis holds Leila away from the traffickers, Sally hands over the money to Claire, but the deal soon turns sour as Claire pulls out a gun and her associate takes Sally hostage.
‘Paradise Highway’ Ending Explained: What Does Sally Learn About Her Brother?
Claire now wants to get Leila back in her custody so that she can sell her off, and her associate starts roughing up Sally. While Dennis holds young Leila, he warns the attackers not to harm his sister, but seeing the male associate roughing Sally up even more, the brother pulls out a revolver and shoots the associate dead. Although Sally is relieved, Claire now starts shouting at Dennis, saying that he was the one who had asked them to make it look real. Sally quickly understands that her brother was very much involved with the child traffickers, and he had told Claire of the entire plan—he and his sister would arrive with the girl and the money, and Sally would pay the money, and then Claire and his associate would rob her of the girl too, while Dennis would pretend that he was on Sally’s side. Dennis does indeed now move into Claire’s mini-van, along with Leila, and Sally can only helplessly run after the vehicle. However, just as they are about to leave, Sally’s women truckers’ group friends appear with their big trucks and block all escape routes for the van. Dennis makes a run for it and then tries to convince his sister that selling the girls off would give them a lot of money with which they could live an easy life, but an infuriated Sally only points her gun at him. Dennis asks what Leila can give Sally that he cannot, and what she owes to the little girl, to which Leila herself answers that she owes her nothing. Sally ultimately lets her brother live, and instead, she and her friends apprehend him. The next morning, Gerick and his partner arrive on the scene, as Sally seems to have contacted him, and they arrest the man and Claire, and also rescue the other young girls. Leila, though, sticks around with Sally, and the two happily drive away as a new-found family.
It is true that “Paradise Highway” offers very little new or unique in terms of its plot, but certain moments in the film do have their due effect. The take of a female trucker being the protagonist and her ever-helpful friends, who are also all women, is a nice uniqueness, as truck stops and rest areas here are seen more as spots of danger or unnecessary trouble than the sort of safe havens that most male truckers in films find them to be. Sally, an experienced and tough trucker, is approached lasciviously by a drunk mascot at one such stop, and so what such places would do with Leila is easily felt. The film also does not make any place for diluting its contents, or for euphemisms, and yet it does not get gory, which is to be commended.
“Paradise Highway” is a 2022 Drama Thriller film written and directed by Anna Gutto.