It's not the most poignant or ground-breaking coming of age tale, but Paper Towns' gentle nature and noble intentions make it a respectable one.
Paper Towns is told from the perspective of young Quentin "Q" Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a resident of Orlando, Florida, who has been infatuated with his neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) ever since they first met as children. The pair quickly become friends, but end up drifting apart during their teen years, following a troubling incident that seemingly has a much greater impact on Margo than it does on Quentin.
Then one night, towards the end of their senior year in high school, Margo unexpectedly climbs into Quentin's bedroom window and recruits him to assist her on a mission: taking revenge against Margo's unfaithful boyfriend and her duplicitous friends. Quentin follows her lead and has the night of his life - only for Margo to vanish from town the next day, without telling anyone where she's headed. However, Quentin soon discovers a series of clues left by Margo that may help him to learn where his mysterious girl next door has gone.
Paper Towns is based on the young adult novel of the same name by John Green and was adapted for the big screen by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. That same writing duo also penned the script for The Fault in Our Stars (another Green novel adaptation), as well as the indie comedy (500) Days of Summer. For related reasons, Paper Towns feels derivative of both those films (as well as similar genre fare), but it nonetheless succeeds in presenting its own messages and themes (not as well as some of its predecessors, admittedly), while also carving out an identity of its own.
Neustadter and Weber's Paper Towns screenplay reflects Green's voice as much as Fault in Our Stars did, though that means the former also relies on the author's more divisive devices (like, having teen characters pontificate about their lives), while telling its coming of age story. It can be heavy-handed at times, but the resulting cinematic narrative usually reaches a comfortable note that tonally falls between the indie comedy of (500) Days of Summer and the harder-edged indie teen romance/drama The Spectacular Now (also scripted by Neustadter and Weber). Moreover, even more explicitly than its writers' past work, Paper Towns deconstructs the "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" trope (by examining where it comes from), to well-intentioned, if uneven results.
Director Jake Schreier made his feature directorial debut on the quirky indie film Robot & Frank, and he brings a similarly whimsical touch to Paper Towns. Schreier and his crew behind the camera manage to capture the worldview of teenagers living in their own isolated world visually, by portraying the movie's Florida backdrop as a world where adults rarely share the screen with their younger costars (even in scenes together), and the teens are often alone with one another in their various activities. Ultimately, the film's lower-budgeted aesthetic plays to the story's advantage, more than hurts it.
Papers Towns also succeeds at expressing the quirks and idiosyncrasies of its young characters through a healthy mix of visual techniques (framing, production design) and the dialogue, allowing for elements such as Quentin's voice-over narration to serve as a useful addition to the proceedings and not simply compensate for the film's visual storytelling shortcomings. The way Paper Towns blends coming of age comedy and personal drama isn't that innovative (nor is the story always as poignant as it aims to be), but Schreier's direction is steady enough that the moments of offbeat humor and earnest reflection co-exist peacefully throughout Quentin's journey.
Nat Wolff played a supporting role in Fault in Our Stars before he was 'upgraded' to protagonist status for Paper Towns, but he's able to make Quentin a relatable and empathetic foil to the more audacious Margo. Cara Delevingne as the latter character leaves a stronger impression than Wolff, but that is partly because Margo is the more complicated (and, in turn, interesting) character in the story. Delevingne succeeds at portraying Margo as the enchanting wild-child that her peers believe her to be, while also subtly communicating that something very different may be going on below her surface.
The main supporting cast for Paper Towns is perhaps stronger than its leads, thanks to a combination of good writing and the likable performances of the cast. Austin Abrams (The Kings of Summer) and Justice Smith (The Get Down) do fine work as Quentin's best friends, Ben and Marcus a.k.a. "Radar", who each get to express their own interests, personality quirks, and vulnerabilities over the course of the film. Similarly, Halston Sage (Neighbors) gets a refreshingly meaty role as Margo's longtime friend, Lacey, and succeeds at subverting the stereotypes associated with the "best friend" archetype. Lastly, Jaz Sinclair (Rizzoli & Isles) as Radar's girlfriend, Angela, doesn't play as important a role as the other supporting characters, but Sinclair does a nice job making the most of her screen time. (Side note: for those interested, you should keep your eyes peeled for a special appearance by a familiar face from the world of John Green movies.)
It's not the most poignant or ground-breaking coming of age tale, but Paper Towns' gentle nature and noble intentions make it a respectable one. The film still boasts fine writing, directing, and acting all around, and for the most part does justice by its source material (though fans of John Green's original novel might find the film's lighter touch a bit disappointing). At the end of the day, Paper Towns just doesn't leave as strong an impression as its peers, nor does its commentary on young love and the teen life pack as strong a punch as other films of the 2010s (be they a high school comedy like Easy A or a more dramatic work like The Perks of Being a Wallflower).
For those reasons, Papers Towns might not have much cross-over appeal beyond the many, many fans of John Green's literature, nor does it have the qualities that make it a must-see in theaters. However, if you are a fan of Green's work and/or the source novel (or just in the mood for a decent coming of age story that's light, funny, and moving at different times), then you might want to consider making a trip to the Paper Towns.
Paper Towns is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 109 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity - all involving teens.
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