If there’s a recurring thread in the teen-centric novels of John Green it’s the defying of expectations. The Fault in out Stars took everything we expected about an illness drama and flipped it around; creating a funny and soulful romance that was surprisingly uplifting. Many of the same things can be said for Paper Towns, a film about first loves, unobtainable dreams, and the early touchstones that define our lives. Few have Green’s level of understanding of what it means to be young, in love, and facing an uncertain future. But two people who share that insight are screenwriters Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter, who along with penning Paper Towns wrote The Fault in our Stars and the excellent The Spectacular Now.
Paper Towns isn’t quite on the level of those other films; some of the central mystique it’s counting on doesn’t quite measure up, but it’s hard to fault any story that manages to make us feel good without delivering everything we want. This goes back to the whole subverting expectations thing, and it’s a lesson that the characters in this film are learning right along with us. Nat Wolff (he played the blind friend in ‘Fault’) is Quentin, a dreamer from a young age who tells us that everyone is entitled to at least one miracle. His particular miracle happens to be the arrival of Margot (Cara Delevingne), his mysterious, tough-chick neighbor who becomes his partner-in-crime early on. But as they grow older she becomes part of the cool high school clique while Quentin is in social Siberia with his geeky loyal bros, Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), each with their own unique quirks. However, Quentin never stopped loving Margot, who managed to become something of local legend over the years, known for wild adventures that may or may not be true. Although they hadn’t spoken for nine years, Margot arrives at his window one night and takes him on one insane night of fun and criminal activity, the first time Quentin has really broken out of his shell. And just as he thinks something special is building between them, she up and disappears the very next day.
The majority of the film centers on the mystery of Margot’s disappearance, but this isn’t meant to be a high stakes thriller. There’s no fear that anything terrible has happened to her; instead it’s clear that the flighty Margot has runaway to some unknown destination, and Quentin believes she has left clues so that only he, her one true love, can find her.
We’ve been conditioned to expect that a story like this will end a certain way, with grand dramatic gestures leading to expressions of devotion. And for the most part, these movies are always from the perspective of guys, who conjure up in their mind this idea of the perfectly eccentric, tough yet vulnerable gal (aka the Manic Pixie Dreamgirl) just waiting to be saved. And we see Quentin doing that, building Margot up in his mind to such a degree that no woman could measure up. Green isn’t interested in embracing such conventions, though; shattering that myth of the MPD with an honest and poignant encounter between Quentin and Margot that is like a much-needed dose of reality.
Still, the best part of this film is the road trip itself. Margot is ultimately not that interesting of a character. The interest we have in her is fleeting (like a teenage crush, actually) and when she leaves the film for a long stretch we begin to wonder why Quentin is so obsessed. It’s not a knock on Delevingne who brings the necessary enigmatic quality to the role. The problem may be with the adaptation itself, which likely cut out some elements from the book that helped define Margot’s personality. What works is the relationship between the guys, and the screenplay does a fantastic job of switching gears to make this a movie about them, their friendship, their fears, and final adventures before going their separate ways. There’s a real sense that these three very different people are bonded by those differences and their shared experiences. Director Jake Schreier previously directed the great Frank Langella in the underrated sci-fi/comedy Robot & Frank, and his particular talent is giving his actors the freedom to grow into their characters. There’s a natural chemistry between the cast that shines brighter than some of the illogical and messy plotting of the central mystery, which unfolds through a serious of razor thin coincidences.
Helping to define a generation similar to the late John Hughes, John Green knows how to embrace the teen movie genre while finding new ways to subvert it. Perceptive and funny, Paper Towns will be best remembered for its engaging characters and defiant spirit.