Based on its trailer, movie posters, and even right up until the first few minutes of its wistful protagonist’s monologue, Paper Towns presents itself as your typical teen movie. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl at first sight, boy is invisible to girl all through high school until that magic movie moment where everything changes and they fall in love. Refreshingly and thankfully, Paper Towns sidesteps the typical trajectory of normal teen fodder; opting instead to tell a story of adolescents that moves beyond relationship drama to delve into something that will be closer to viewers’ hearts.
With a deft mix of humour, heart and a dash of mystery to keep it interesting, Paper Towns doesn’t necessarily subvert the typical teen movie the way it thinks it does. What it does do, however, is offer a nostalgic and evocative tale that manages to provide a fresh perspective on the typical teen themes of friendship, sex, graduation and college that will leave its target demographic with a yearning for the times of yesteryear.
Following the John Green novel on which it was adapted, Paper Towns is the story of Quentin ‘Q’ Jacobsen (Nat Wolff, following his appearance in last year’s The Fault in Our Stars) and his childhood friend and crush Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne, in her first lead acting role). Despite being friends for almost half of their lives, the pair has drifted apart, until one night; she climbs through his window asking for her old partner in crime to help her with a mission of revenge. After a wild night of escapades, Margo mysteriously disappears the next day, leaving Q to search for her using the clues he believes Margo has left for him. Together with his best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), the trio – with the help of their significant others – embark on a journey to help Quentin find his love and perhaps find themselves as they experience one last adventure before leaving for college.
Continuing their collaboration from last year’s successful adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars, screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber return here with a distinct sense of understanding and familiarity with Green’s work. Again, staying faithful to their source material, Neustadter and Weber show off their wealth of experience in the young adult genre by injecting their screenplay with humor, heart and a distinct sense of ease and naturalness. Some of the conversations between Ben, Radar and Quentin are so sincere and honest, you feel at times like you are overhearing boys talking at school rather than watching a movie.
No matter what the topic of conversation (believe me, there are certainly some hilariously strange ones), there is a general sense of familiarity and casualness evident in the screenplay that audiences will be able to easily resonate with. Director Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank) compliments the laidback style of the screenplay, offering no-frills and simplistic (albeit sometimes overly so) direction that focuses on the characters rather than the action going on around them. The use of long panning shots in the film’s third act, as it moves into its road movie territory, are a notable exception; visually interesting and delivered with a endearingly earnest sensibility.
Stepping up from his comic sidekick role in Fault, Nat Wolff seems well at home as the semi-confident and awkwardly adorable Quentin. His natural charm and likeability serve his character well and help sell the gradual build in Quentin’s confidence over the course of the movie. Likewise, in their supporting roles, the relatively unknown Austin Abrams and Justice Smith offer equally amusing and thoughtful performances as Quentin’s best friends Ben and Radar. The trio and their affable chemistry is easily one of the movie’s best strengths. In fact, the movie is at its best when it is telling the story of these three just hanging out and contemplating life’s big issues like girls, Pokémon and who it is they are taking to prom. Sadly, the same cannot be said for Cara Delevingne’s Margo.
As the object of Quentin’s affection, Delevingne’s one-note performance makes it somewhat difficult to understand why Q even likes her at all. Perpetually sullen and sulking, even when she appears to be having fun during their night of escapades, Delevingne’s performance notably lacks the adventurous personality that makes Margo so desirable to those around her. In her attempt to make Margo mysterious and sexy, Delevingne instead appears aloof and disinterested as she mumbles her way through the fairly one-dimensional performance she turns in here. Likewise, whilst there is a faint hint of chemistry between Wolff and Delevingne, it is nowhere near as strong or believable as the bond Wolff shares with Smith and Abrams. In fact, it is when Margo isn’t around that Paper Towns really finds its stride, allowing the film to focus on the much more interesting and well-matched wider cast.
Indeed, it’s in this focus on being young, dumb and carefree that Paper Towns really endears itself to its audience. In choosing not to foreground the love story between Margo and Q, Paper Towns makes a wise decision to tell a more relatable and grounded story. This is helped significantly by its soundtrack, which has been put together by Fault’s soundtrack supervisors Kevin Weaver and Season Kent. Gathering a range of previously released and new material from indie favourites like Grouplove, Haim, The Mountain Goats and Vampire Weekend, the film delivers a uniquely retro musical feeling that puts its audiences into the shoes of its young, naive and blissful protagonists. In doing so, Paper Towns packs a huge punch of nostalgia that makes sure you leave the cinema with a smile on your face.
Whilst perhaps not as emotionally powerfully as its predecessor The Fault In Our Stars, the latest John Green adaptation is a delightful film. With a distinct nostalgic feel, an honest and earnest screenplay and a particularly strong performance from its likeable charming lead Nat Wolff, Paper Towns is a film with a lot to say about adolescents and their journey into adulthood. The film delivers a refreshing and unique focus on the adolescent boy voice in the teen film, challenging your perception of this subgenre to deliver a movie that will have you smiling wistfully as you contemplate all the dumb stuff you did as a teenager, whether it were for a crush or just a good time with your friends. For this alone, Paper Towns is worth the price of admission.
THE REEL SCORE: 7/10