When we watch films, we often reduce characters down to archetypes. We do this to streamline the story and keep our attention focused. When it doesn’t serve the plot, characters become cardboard cutouts. This is such a well-worn device in storytelling, it’s easy to forget that we strip people of dimension every day in our own lives. At its core, this is what Paper Towns is about: our inability to see each other with the same complexity with which we see ourselves. It’s a lesson particularly suited to the coming of age formula, resulting in a film that feels both resonant and entirely honest.
Based on the John Green novel of the same name, Paper Towns stars Nat Wolff (The Fault in Our Stars) as Quentin, a high school senior whose lived the majority of his life pining for Margo (Cara Delevigne, Anna Karenina), the girl next door. At first glance, Quentin fits the bill of the standard nerdy and somewhat naive hero. He’s not quite a wallflower, but he’s certainly not looking to take center stage, preferring instead to hang out in his band room with his friends- the geeky and constantly horny Ben (Austin Abrams) and the smart yet overly cautious Radar (Justice Smith). And then of course there’s Margo, equal parts rebel and manic pixie dream girl. At Quentin’s high school, she’s more than just popular, she’s a myth.
One night, Margo slips into Quentin’s room and the two spend an exhilarating night exacting revenge on fellow classmates who’ve wronged her. The next morning, Margo disappears without a trace. Well, not exactly without a trace. Quentin finds a clue Margo left behind, and sees it as a challenge: come find me. Ben and Radar join Quentin on a road trip following her trail of breadcrumbs, joined by Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jazz Sinclair) and Lacey (Halston Sage), a popular girl and worried friend of Margo’s. The journey takes on a darker dimension as Quentin’s search for Margo evolves into an obsession. He likens himself to Ahab, leaving his friends to question if he realizes that Ahab is not the hero of Moby-Dick.
Paper Towns is the second of John Green’s novels to be given the adaptation treatment after last year’s impressively successful The Fault in Our Stars, and its hard to feel like this film isn’t standing in its shadow. The film is written by the same writers, Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber, was made by many of the same producers, and stars Nat Wolff, who had a supporting role in last year’s film. Ansel Elgort, the male lead from The Fault in Our Stars, even makes a brief appearance. Despite this, Paper Towns actually manages to be a better film, and while its subject matter might not be as heavy, it achieves complexity and nuance not seen in last year’s film.
Director Jake Schreier’s last film, the heart-wrenching 2012 pseudo-caper Robot and Frank, was genre defying. This time, he is operating in well-worn territory, but does so knowingly. The film hits all the coming of age hallmarks and exhibits some of the genre’s strained logic. Quentin’s impromptu road trip goes over exceptionally well with his mother, and virtually every other adult is a nonentity, with the noted exception of Margo’s almost criminally apathetic parents. So while the film isn’t setting out to subvert ever genre staples, it also never uses them as a crutch. Instead, Schreier maneuvers in and out of tropes, inverting expectations in a way that isn’t just surprising, but thematically resonant.
The result is a film that feels surprisingly genuine, which is something rare for coming of age films. Neustadter and Weber do a commendable job, balancing out Green’s more prosaic language (mostly relegated to Wolff’s voiceovers) with dialog that actually feels like it would be spoken by teenagers. Paper Towns benefits from an excellent cast of young actors helmed by Nat Wolff who brings great depth to the role of Quentin. Smith and Abrams work fantastically well together and with Wolff, the three feel like longtime friends. Cara Delevigne is dynamic as Margo and the film uses her to great effect. Her screen time might not be as extensive as the film’s advertising would have you believe, but her impact is just as powerful on the audience as it is on the film’s character. Perhaps the most surprising thing about all the performances is how organic their interactions with each other are. Paper Towns is a great example when good performances and good writing can come together to create something that’s greater than the sum of their parts.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
The term ‘paper town’ refers to the fake towns that cartographers would create to keep others from copying their maps. It of course takes on deeper meaning, describing the lack of dimension with which we view the world. Paper Towns investigates one of the most crucial lessons we have to learn in growing up: how to see others as the complex, multi-dimensional people they are. Paper Towns is a rare that neither diminishes or hyperbolizes the love, tragedy, and explosive humanity of youth. It rather strives to strip its characters to what they are at their core: people.