Paper Towns brings together a somewhat strange group, with the screenplay by the same writers who worked on John Green’s last novel, The Fault in Our Stars, but this time with director Jake Schreier, who doesn’t really have a lot of credits other than 2012’s brilliant Robot & Frank. The Fault in Our Stars was a surprisingly solid effort, and Paper Towns is actually no different, but Robot & Frank is a very different style, and what makes magic in one effort does not necessarily deliver the best possible version of another.
The story is that of Quentin (Nat Wolff), a mild-mannered High School senior, and his relationship with the girl who has lived across the street from him since he was a mere lad. They were friends in their younger years, but as they grew up, he found himself in his own niche among the less-than-popular people, while the object of his affection, Margo (Cara Delevingne), not only gravitated to the popular crowd, but grew into something of a legend.
Always a fan of mysteries, Margo shows up at Quentin’s window one night, and takes him on a bizarre adventure, but in the morning, she disappears. A few vague clues, that she clearly left for Quentin, lead him on a quest to find her, which ultimately becomes the excuse for his friends to join him on a road trip.
We’ve seen coming-of-age before, but this time we get it inside-out, and backwards. The focus is always on finding Margo, and the strange things necessary to follow her clues. Quentin’s friends, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) round out Quentin’s world, but remain at the periphery of his attention.
As a film, Paper Towns is only just above serviceable, largely because it drags for long stretches, and doesn’t take full advantage of its side characters, who provide most of the best moments. As a story, it’s one of the most inventive attempts at staying loosely within a genre to come along in a while, and it thus becomes a film you hope a generation will latch onto. A kind of anti-Bildungsroman, Quentin is the poster child for society’s hopes, and sets off on a quest that he doesn’t initially realize he’s on, to figure out why that isn’t working for him. Moreover, his maturity is really the flaw he’s trying to work through, and though it is spelled out a little too simplistically here, what he ultimately learns is that he has no idea who he is, which is supposed to be just about the only thing our protagonist starts with.
At the end, Quentin learns almost nothing, except the most important thing anyone will ever learn, the true part of you that other people are. It isn’t that Quentin accepts that he doesn’t love Margo, or realizes that the Margo in his mind is almost completely fictional. That’s child’s play for this film, and the audience is ten steps ahead of Quentin as he travels those roads. No, it’s that he ultimately surpasses the audience by assimilating her. But for you, I would not have done those things. That’s who you are. That’s who I am.
What really adds to the story is a kind of quiet confidence the film (usually) has in laying out the foundations for the journey. Quentin, Ben, and Radar are allowed an inordinate number of “normal” moments through the film’s opening, which isn’t the usual portrayal of “reality,” especially in films that involve High School. Their friendship is made all the more real by avoiding actually pointing at it, or creating complicated, cliche events, and instead just letting them hang in the band room and babble at each other. Similarly, in a scene that has the trio looking through Margo’s room for clues, the film just lets the scene play out, without anyone having to make note of the fact that they clearly don’t know her at all. It’s enough to just watch them in the moment.
Ultimately, while it is fun, and a fairly enjoyable movie, especially for a younger audience, the movie may distance itself from a lot of audiences by also being in the very rare genre of a yarn. It isn’t exactly after only its own story, but the full experience of someone trying to explain something to you, who pauses when it isn’t going well, and says, “Ok, let me tell you a story.”
WritingScott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, John Green (book)
CastNat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams
Image Credit20th Century Fox
SynopsisAdapted from the bestselling novel by author John Green ("The Fault in Our Stars"), PAPER TOWNS is a coming-of-age story centering on Quentin and his enigmatic neighbor Margo, who loved mysteries so much she became one. After taking him on an all-night adventure through their hometown, Margo suddenly disappears--leaving behind cryptic clues for Quentin to decipher. The search leads Quentin and his quick-witted friends on an exhilarating adventure that is equal parts hilarious and moving. Ultimately, to track down Margo, Quentin must find a deeper understanding of true friendship--and true love.