On The Road Release Date: Out December 21, New Adaptation of Youth Classic

Walter Salles upcoming adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s Beat generation novel, On the Road — featuring Kristen Stewart (Marylou), Garrett Hedlund (Dean Morriarty), Tom Sturridge (Carlo Marx) and Sam Riley (Sal Paradise)— premiered at Cannes this May to mixed reviews and opens nationwide December 21.

As the first ever film adaptation of the cult novel, the material has been considered almost too sacrosanct to attempt on screen before. PolicyMic caught an early showing to weigh in on how millennials might react to the updated youth classic.

On the Road is the story of aspiring writer Dean Morriarty’s peregrinations from New York to California with his counter-culture friends. It’s also a thinly autobiographical sketch of Kerouac and contemporaries. The film is atmospheric, sensual, and contains great performances. Purists attached to the novel may not be fans. The thin Beat poetry backdrop has none of the crescendo power of Ginsberg, although his prose is used liberally.

And, in our health-obsessed age where we eat right, workout, and don’t as often, “fall into bed with people we don’t know,” the film’s melancholy depiction of wanderlust, Benzedrine highs, heroin lows, and even the orgies, seem more pitiable than inspirational. Dean Morriarty is not a glamorous hero; he’s the cautionary tale we thank for the wild ride, and then leave behind. Millennials aren’t boring; we’ve just grown bored of Beatnik immaturity.

Perhaps anticipating this disconnect with the subject matter, the film has a distinctly modern feel, and the fragmentary enjoyability of a road trip, rather than earnestness of a manifesto. Like Michelle Williams in My Week with Marilyn, the actors embody characters not impressions. With such legendary figures as William S. Burroughs, Alan Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassady to play, the film could easily have slipped into caricature in less capable hands. Kristen Stewart is alive as child-bride Marylou in a raw, jailbait way she first perfected in Into the Wild, and Kirsten Dunst seems born to play Camille, whom Carlo calls, “Helen of Troy with a brain.”

Unexpected cameos from Amy Adams, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buscemi bring outsized pleasure to their small parts. And, like any road trip, the music is key. With handheld cameras, and long sepia-toned shots out car windows, we see America roll by in snatches, accompanied by our favorite songs on the radio. The film feels like a memory—a lyric, an image, a strong emotion—in assembled nostalgic bits, from the trip of a lifetime.

“Sweet 16” plays languidly in the back of a truck, while smoking cigarettes and driving through Nebraska. “I’ve Got The World On a String” brings us back to a first love, and a bar full of friends. Ella Fitzgerald and a few blues standards are blended with a moody original score from Oscar winner Gustavo Santaolalla (Brokeback Mountain and Babel) to make the soundtrack feel like as organic and impulsive as Sal’s wanderings.

In this version, California is a dream and Denver is a harsh reality. Places stand in for ideas and we never stop moving. The only lasting impression is Kerouac’s evergreen declaration, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”