Paper Towns review

The film of John Green's Paper Towns fails to recreate the success of The Fault In Our Stars...

Everything is uglier up close. That’s the platitude that Paper Towns – an adaptation of John Green’s novel of the same name, directed by Jake Schreier – decides to go with. We romanticise things to the point where they’re unrecognisable from what they really are, and in doing so we miss the true, genuine things in front of our faces.

Paper Towns wants to be the deconstruction of the teen drama, and has been applauded in some corners for subverting the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. It does neither of those things, despite a lot of effort on both counts, and what is left over is sadly never substantial enough to justify the movie.

Margo (Cara Delevingne) is Quentin’s (Nat Wolff) aforementioned dream girl, a childhood friend who he reluctantly fell out of contact with when she became popular in high school. One night she arrives at his window and asks him to help with a series of revenge pranks on her ex-boyfriend and various other members of the It-crowd and, the next day, she is missing. Taking it upon himself to find her before their senior prom, Q and his friends embark on an adventure to track her down.

But there’s one problem that the film never gets over – Margo is a character who is at times hugely tedious, and at others wholly uninteresting. This type of girl – the missing girl who unfolds in stolen moments, flashbacks and dream sequences – has been around forever. Margo is Lily Kane and Laura Palmer and (for today’s target audience) Alison DiLaurentis all wrapped up in one.

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But she can’t pull it off. She is the kind of person who would randomly capitalise letters in the middle of a word, and has a tendency to speak in riddles and faux-poetic soundbites – she has none of the allure or enigmatic quality required to make a character like this work for the audience.

It’s when you realise this that the whole film threatens to fall apart. If we don’t believe in the mythology of Margo, and thus can’t empathise with Q’s infatuation with her, then there is no reason for the viewer to get into the car in search of a girl we’re all too aware doesn’t actually exist. The supporting characters aren’t too much of a saviour, either – amounting to three fellow nerds and Lacey, a popular girl who wants to be acknowledged for more than her looks.

Lacey is the best of the bunch, grounding the group in some sense of maturity and depth missing from even our protagonist. The road trip mishaps and adventures are by-the-numbers, but there are also brief glimpses of something vaguely charming as the film gets into its stride. It’s at its most enjoyable when it isn’t even concerned with Margo, when it’s about the little interactions between them – a group of teenagers approaching a crossroads in their lives.

And, as few female-centric teen dramas go with the message of independence and the power of friendship, it’s also nice to see that message pasted onto a male protagonist. The film starts off being about the all-consuming infatuation of a teenage boy for his first crush, and what we end up with is something quite different. It’s refreshing in its willingness to allow its characters to come across as pretentious teens, rather than mini-adults wise before their time.

Paper Towns ultimately tries for a lot of things, but sadly doesn’t really land many of them. It’s a shame, because many of its ideas, when looked at out of context, are interesting and smart and fresh. But they’re wrapped in a mundane film with so-so characters, dragging down what could have easily been – like The Fault In Our Stars before it – decent teen fare with a genuine sweetness and an unexpected emotional intelligence.

As it is, Paper Towns is riddled with as many clichés as it tries to subvert, pretending to be different from the rest of its genre while falling into all of the same traps. In a lot of ways, it’s representative of the unashamedly earnest take on the modern teenage perspective that has made Green’s novels so successful, but the film lacks the soul the subject matter demands. The film, like Margo, is all big, ostentatious ideas and little actual substance.

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2 out of 5