During the first scene of Paper Towns, a young boy named Quentin believes he has been sent a miracle when Margo Roth Spiegelman moves in across the street. She’s 11-years-old and already a rule-breaking hellraiser that seems destined to be the most popular kid in school, not to mention the most unknowable.
In other words, Paper Towns begins as a pure Young Adult tale of unrequited love and thwarted adolescent yearnings. Either you’re going to go with this kind of unrepentant schmaltz or you’re not. But for those with just a bit of sentimentality in their hearts, Paper Towns will wrap around “the feels” like a citywide holiday gift box. Indeed, as based on the John Green novel of the same name, the double-dealing picture has its cake and eats it too, simultaneously demystifying and deifying the high school experience, and all the universally unrealized passions therein.
For so much melodrama, director Jake Schreier and presumably Green’s novel accomplish this by resisting the urge of this being a true romance. Yes, it is marketed with one-sheets of a haunted looking Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne sharing a wistful stare into the camera, but in actuality their coupling (if you can call it that) lasts for less than the first 30 minutes of the movie. Really, Paper Towns is three distinct stories: their one night of adventure together near the end of high school (years after she had stopped talking to him in eighth grade), his desperate search to find her after she runs away the next day, and finally a road trip for Quentin (or Que) and the rest of his friends.
Filling out the supporting cast are Ben (Austin Abrams), Que’s most awkward band geek buddy, Radar (Justice Smith), the only one of the high school chums with a girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair), Radar’s said girlfriend, and finally Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo’s former best friend that had her bridge burned while Que was riding shotgun to Margo’s mischief. It’s mostly the usual cast of assorted teenage archetypes, especially of the nerdy variety, but it’s that aforementioned wrongdoing toward Lacey and others that is the film’s strongest section.
Since her boyfriend betrayed her, Margo is convinced all of her friends are guilty; so before skipping town, the high school’s most enigmatic presence enlisted her awkward puppy dog worshipper in Que to help in a night of harmless teenage revenge and 2 am slow dancing. It’s one evening that makes up almost a quarter of the picture, and it sends Que on a frenzied search to find her again.
The Scooby gang and “Where in the World is Margo Spiegelman” second act is weak, but this longwinded set-up is why this movie will land with its target audience.
I have never seen Cara Delevingne on screen before, but the newly appointed “It Girl” of Hollywood leaves a noticeable impression here. Whether Delevingne is the next big thing is still yet to be determined, but Margo is such an unfathomable mystery to Quentin, who from the get-go dubiously puts her on a pedestal as a “miracle,” that Delevingne is required to simply personify the unattainably appealing “cool girl,” allowing charisma to do the rest.
Thus perhaps taking lessons from Gillian Flynn’s Amy Dunne, Margo is everything to Que and yet an obscure riddle to ensnare the audience. This deliberate contradiction is what holds Paper Towns up despite its lesser following acts. Their adventure together is cookie cutter youth rebellion, but the early scenes pull deeply from those witching hours in a young life that are revolutionary. The mystique of Margo might be YA aggrandizement, but the affect it has on Que is universal enough to justify why one sequence takes up a quarter of his coming-of-age story.
As that teen who has his life rocked by a vanishing crush, Wolff serves Green’s machinations well. The young actor has already portrayed adolescent obsession much more strongly in the past with indies like Palo Alto, but here he’s primarily required to be that every-kid on the precipice of high school, adulthood, and maybe love. It is not the most unique of protagonists in this kind of yarn, but Wolff instills Que with enough mistaken vulnerability and sympathy to be endearing…and maybe offset any potentially unpleasant subtexts about a kid who obsesses with chasing the neighborhood girl he barely knows across the country.
The rest of the movie is fueled by this desire, as well as a more standard road trip of high jinks. Due to his search for Margo, Que brings Ben and Radar also out of their shells, causing them to skip class for the first time, drive out of state the first time from Florida to New York, and he even lands Ben a chance to socialize with the popular but miserable Lacey. It’s a teenage adventure most experienced at some point in growing up, plus in a hundred other movies, but it’s handled here with enough wit by the filmmakers that like the last adaptation of a Green novel, The Fault in Our Stars, it finds the right balance between clever and maudlin.
Still, as agreeable as all these young performers are, the familiar story beats can only echo because of that first act, which will have younger viewers, and the young at heart, bewitched. Margo is quite consciously the eternal wayward question mark you probably knew in high school or college. It’s a self-cultivated image that is exhilarating in youth but faintly tragic beyond that.
Of course, Paper Towns isn’t interested in the after. It is only fixated on the final transitions of adolescence, and it finds that in most extravagantly theatrical way possible. But for the right audience, even vaudeville can be opera, and Paper Towns knows how to hit its high notes.