It's no secret that Indiana-based author John Green isn't particularly fond of the "YA" or "Young Adult" label to which so much of his writing has been so easily, and rather lazily, assigned. It had to be rather satisfying for Green when he finally sat down to watch Paper Towns, directed by Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank), a film that exists in a world where teenagers are actual human beings who transcend their teenage stereotypes partly due to Green's insatiable curiosity about the human experience and partly due to the fact that Paper Towns' scribes Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (500 Days of Summer, The Fault in Our Stars) have rather stunning instincts when it comes to depicting the lives of those on the cusp of young adulthood.
Paper Towns may be a harder sell than The Fault in Our Stars, Green's first novel adapted for the big screen that benefited from the presence of rising star Shailene Woodley and an inherently more dramatic and sympathetic story to tell. Paper Towns tells an arguably more laid back story, a story that doesn't toss in unnecessary histrionics or dramatic false notes. Green doesn't write in Breakfast Club like stereotypes, but instead he seems to want to make us realize that the labels that we so easily place upon ourselves and others really do nothing more than place unnecessary limitations on ourselves and the world in which we live.
Paper Towns exists in a world where even the most idealized character, in this case one Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), is both remarkably approachable and seemingly larger than life in her role as the queen bee of an Orlando high school. Despite appearing to be never less than approachable, Quentin (Nat Wolff) never really approaches her after having lost that right several years earlier after refusing to follow her in solving a neighborhood mystery as young children. From that day forward, Quentin followed his expected life path as a band geek and mostly unnoticed nered while Margo grew into a beautiful and mysterious young woman existing mostly as her high school's living legend of sorts.
One night, Margo shows up back at Quentin's bedroom window as she had done so many nights before when they were children, and invites him to accompany her on yet another adventure to "right some wrongs and wrong some rights." This time, Quentin says "Yes."
John Green purists may very well find themselves a little bothered by the ways in which this cinematic adaptation deviates from Green's original text, though Green has been outspoken in his support of the film and his admiration for the ways in which Weber and Neustadter maintained the central themes contained within his novel. The movie Paper Towns does deviate from Green's novel, at times rather dramatically, though Green is absolutely correct in observing that the film remains faithful to the novel's essential core.
Paper Towns has a bit of an 80's vibe to it, but this may very well be because 80's teen/young adult films so often seemed to have a healthy respect for their characters and a sensitive intelligence that is too often set aside in contemporary films in favor of special effects laden action sequences and faux dramatics. It would have been relatively easy to turn Paper Towns into a film more dramatic than it is, an expectation that I'll confess I struggled with as I watched the mystery of Margo unfold and kept finding myself wondering when "the big reveal' was going to happen.
Truthfully? It never really did.
Paper Towns isn't a film about "the big reveal" or the big mystery or the big drama or anything else that feels fake. In fact, it's probably a film that Margo Roth Spiegelman would love, because it's a film that embraces those little authentic moments that when peeled back reveal the truth of who we are. When Quentin returns from his one-night adventure with Margo, he realistically believes that his long objectified "relationship" with Margo has been restored to its rightful place.
Then, Margo is gone again.
Over time, we learn that Margo is far more complex than she's been given credit.
Over time, we learn that the same is true for Quentin.
Quentin becomes convinced that Margo has left him a trail to follow toward solving the mystery of her whereabouts. It is not surprising that Quentin, struggling to see anything more than what he wants to see about Margo, follows the trail in hopes of solving the mystery in the way that he believes the mystery will be solved.
The brilliance of Paper Towns, however, is that it's not just about Quentin and Margo. It's as much about friendship and the world in which Quentin lives, a world that includes Ben (Austin Abrams), a seemingly immature nerd who has idealized a sexual encounter as the eventual definer of his masculinity, Radar (newcomer Justice Smith), the only one of the three in an actual relationship but whose shame over his family's massive Black Santa collection keeps him from inviting girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) to his home, and even Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo's "best friend" and a beauty queen whose authenticity isn't often seen behind that mask of being a cheerleader.
In fact, despite solid performances from co-leads Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne, it's arguable that Paper Towns' most satisfying moments are found from its immensely compelling supporting players. Nat Wolff, who was also seen in The Fault in Our Stars, gives off an almost Justin Long type vibe in portraying that 80's like nice guy that everyone knew in high school and who always harbored a crush on the unattainable most popular girl in the school. While it could easily play as a caricature, Wolff fleshes it all out quite nicely and makes you hope that Quentin finds whatever it is he's actually really looking for with Margo.
Cara Delevingne, one of the planet's most in demand supermodels in real life, is realistically mysterious yet earthy and honest as Margo. We both understand why she's considered beyond Quentin's reach even while also seeing the obvious flaws that are right in front of Quentin's eyes yet can't be seen because of how his years of objectifying her have clouded his vision.
I enjoyed the mystery and journey of Quentin and Margo, but for me Paper Towns really came to life through its supporting characters.
Newcomer Justice Smith gives what is very likely the film's best performance as Radar, a young African-American male whose heritage is an everyday part of his life courtesy of his family's decision to go full-on bonkers with the whole Black Santa thing. Radar is a refreshingly honest and straightforward depiction of an African-American male devoid of stereotypes and celebrating his intelligence, sensitivity, humor and humanity. Smith seems to find every nuance within his character, ranging from his honest awkwardness with his girlfriend, played beautifully by Jaz Sinclair, to his reaction when handed a certain t-shirt that is likely a far more timely statement than anyone could have ever expected when the scene was shot. It's a break-out performance for Smith and we can only hope he continues to be cast so wisely.
Austin Abrams, whose only other credit was in The Kings of Summer, gives Paper Towns much of its humor and heart. Abrams is clearly naturally funny, yet he doesn't mine his character for cheap laughs. He digs deeper and finds within Ben a genuinely good fellow whose camaraderie with Quentin and Radar feels genuine and satisfying.
Halston Sage is another relative newcomer, though you'd have a hard time believing that from her disciplined yet spirited performance here as Lacey, who may have been wrongly accused by Margo of betraying their friendship and who decides to join with Angela and travel along with the boys on a 2,200 mile road trip to solve the mystery of Margo. If there was a fault in these kinds of 80's films, it was in the fact that sometimes the most unrealistic relationships would be formed seemingly out of thin air. Sage layers her character's unfolding in such a way that when we finally sense a spark between her and another character it feels more honest and believable. Sage is really given the least to do among the key players here, but she makes the most of her time on screen.
As was true for The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns includes a soundtrack that both has a retro vibe yet catches onto a contemporary vibe. Is it possible to be a retro hipster?
While it may be unrealistic to expect Paper Towns to attract the kind of global box-office success that did The Fault in Our Stars, given Green's loyal legion of fans and a noticeable absence of quality stories for young adults in multiplexes these days one can't rule out that Green, who is also an executive producer on the film, and his increasingly cohesive production team have crafted yet another winner. It's rare that studios so fully commit themselves to marketing these types of films, yet Green seems to attract that kind of fierce devotion to his circle even among those who maintain a financial interest in everything that unfolds.
Yep. Even in what many might consider a paper town, Hollywood can surprise us and serve up an honest, funny, entertaining and endearing film about friendship, identity, self-realization and the people who surround us in all their complex glory.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic