Paper Towns (2015)

Get Lost. Get Found.

Coming-of-age films are certainly not uncommon within the motion-picture landscape, as Hollywood somehow manages to propagate a fresh batch for each new era. Though, every now and then, one of these pictures sticks out in amongst the sea of countless others, leaving its mark upon the world, resonating with its core audience and future generations to come. From Rebel Without a Cause (1955), which saw T-shirt sales soar after James Dean’s iconic look oozed the get-up to super-cool levels, to the definitive John Hughes classic, The Breakfast Club (1985) — considered by fans and critics alike as one of the greatest high school films of all time — this genre has given viewers positive memories, along with quotable phrases and idioms, that will last a lifetime. Most recently, author John Green seems to have struck a chord with the current generation, providing a voice for contemporary youth, particularly within his video blogs and writings. Thus, it comes as no surprise that following the success of 2014s The Fault in Our Stars, producers have turned to Green’s material to fill the filmic canvas, offering up pictures that cater for modern day youngsters, in the hope of translating more of his popular young-adult books to the silver screen. So here we are with Paper Towns, the second of Green’s book-to-film adaptations — based on the 2008 best-selling novel of the same name — which comes as a new and edgy, exploratory coming-of-age ‘dramdey,’ working as a satisfying compromise between mushy teen idolism and melancholic indie flair, while operating as a break-through platform for first-time leading lady Cara Delevingne.

A boy, a girl and a shop full of teenage charm!
A boy, a girl and a shop full of teenage charm!

Inspired by Green’s highly admired novella, Paper Towns — primarily set in Orlando, Florida — tells the bittersweet story of high school senior Quentin ‘Q’ Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) and his enigmatic neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), who loved mysteries so much she eventually became one. Quentin and Margo were close friends for the duration of their early childhood — having made a woeful life-changing discovery together — but sadly grew apart as they both matured; though, throughout the subsequent years, Quentin still held a torch for Margo, referring to her as his one-and-only ‘miracle.’ Late one fateful night, in the midst of their final year of high school, a chance occurrence sees Margo ask Quentin for his help on a mission of revenge, a payback operation against friends — and her ex-boyfriend — who had recently wronged her. This midnight escapade becomes a significant moment for Quentin, as he soon begins to pine after Margo once more. However, on the morning after taking Quentin on the ‘dreamlike’ all-night adventure through their hometown, Margo suddenly disappears, leaving behind cryptic clues for him to decipher. Family and friends are all mystified, unsure of Margo’s whereabouts, though Margo’s breadcrumb trail eventually leads Quentin and his band of quick-witted friends on an exhilarating road-trip to track-down, and bring home, the teenage runaway. Equally funny as it is moving, this transitory journey teaches Quentin, and his band of recruits, about themselves and their half-formed relationships, as they discover a deeper understanding of true friendship — and love — especially Quentin, who learns what to do with his misplaced affection for Margo, the unattainable girl next door whom he ‘worships.’

During the opening moments of Paper Towns it feels as though the narrative is headed down that predictable ‘coming-of-age’ path; boy meets girl, girl lives across the street from boy, girl leads an adventurous life, and, boy yearns for girl’s recognition from afar. Nonetheless, we quickly come to realize that director Jake Schreier, Robot & Frank (2012), and his talented team of screenwriters — Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the duo responsible for penning The Fault in Our Stars (2014) and The Spectacular Now (2013) — immediately pull the story out of its humdrum condition, throwing proceedings into a kaleidoscope of different directions, subverting expectations at every possible turn, delivering a beautifully photographed and deeply moving portrait of adolescent evolution. If there’s one thing Paper Towns does exceedingly well, it’s that it cleverly shows the initial trappings of that ‘messy’ transitional period between puberty and adulthood in an authentic and believable way; Quentin and his comrades grow and develop realistically as the story prods along, with the youngsters making somewhat rational — albeit foolish — decisions, that teens their age are sure to make. The flick also shrewdly comments on existing current-day attitudes, whereby people are labeled as trophies, to be won over, or objects of admiration — as in Quentin’s case with Margo — though, at the end of the day, Paper Towns signifies that everyone is ‘regular’ and ‘commonplace,’ emphasizing that Margo, despite her social stature, is not some ‘marvelous wonder;’ she’s simply just a ‘girl.’

Victoria's Secret
Victoria’s Secret

As a film, Paper Towns effortlessly endeavors to differentiate itself within its genre. The narrative has a poignant maturity, with a pinch of hormonal angst, about it that gives this film the necessary edge it needs to stand out among its ‘peers.’ Also, the flick’s conclusion comes as a pleasant surprise, adding a unique twist that offers a startling satisfaction to the teen’s lesson-learning venture. Even within the stereotypical trappings of a typical party scene — suggested teen sex and proverbial geek banter aside — the film’s sharp yet expressive writing lifts these moments, and the storyline, out of the post-pubescent mire giving it surprising thematic depth. It may seem unrealistic to think that high schoolers could actually speak at the profundity that they do in Paper Towns, but the actors/actresses portraying these characters make the often ‘melodramatic’ dialogue plausible and accessible.

Headed by relatively unknowns, the film’s casting is ‘spot on’ impeccable, as all the performances — from the multifaceted leads to their exuberant sidekicks — convey the right amount of depth, emotion and wit, treading a fine line between campiness and sentimentality; for once, it comes as a welcome change watching actors ‘pretending’ to be teenagers who actually look like teenagers themselves. Starring in his second ‘John Green adaptation,’ succeeding his credible portrayal of Isaac, Augustus’ blind best friend in The Fault in Our Stars, Nat Wolff proves to possess that textbook blend of boyish charm and alluring maturity, making Quentin a likeable and relatable ‘average-kid’ male protagonist; Wolff has a verified levelheadedness about him and delivers all his beats, comedic and dramatic, quite well — he is certainly a talent to look out for. While appearing a little too ‘old’ to embody a teenager, picturesque model-turned-movie-star Cara Delevingne, The Face of an Angel (2014), seems to be the perfect fit to play the ‘experienced,’ sagacious high schooler Margo Roth Spiegelman — though Green has admittedly come out and said that he would have cast Emma Blackery, a fellow YouTuber, in the role of Margo if the casting were left up to him. In any case, Paper Towns comes off as a show-reel for the arresting Delevingne, certainly a star-making vehicle for the promising ingénue, as this stylish and spirited up-and-comer provides enough smoldering excitement and worldliness to make Margo worth Quentin’s pursuit; Delevingne simply relishes the part, placing her own quaint stamp on the cosmopolitan beauty.

... totally smitten ...
… totally smitten …

Thankfully, the frontrunners are surrounded by a delightful cast of support characters, adding flavor while complementing our ‘heroes’ on their rite-of-passage outing. Somewhat new to the acting game, Austin Abrams implants authenticity and laugh-out-loud humor to Ben Starling, Quentin’s ‘nerdy’ friend, whereas Justice Smith’s honest rendering of Marcus ‘Radar’ Lincoln — the only guy in Quentin’s friendship circle who has somehow managed to bag himself a ‘lady’ — enlivens the film’s pensive mood and solemnity with his offbeat effeminate traits, bringing the wary, anxious youngster to life in a genuine and humorous way. The female secondary players fare just as well as their male counterparts with Halston Sage, Neighbors (2014) imbedding sincerity and personality into the archetypal ‘pretty-girl’ Lacey Pemberton — Margo’s best friend — while Jaz Sinclair, in her first big-screen appearance, makes Angela — Radar’s sweetheart — a worthy-of-note role-model, someone young ladies can actually aspire to, as this schoolgirl is not so fixated on Prom or other trendy feminine fads or crazes.

In the realm of teen dramas, Paper Towns does provide an innovative perspective on the current generation, but if there are any drawbacks with the film, it’s in its lack of adult involvement. Within Paper Towns, the absence of parental representation does leave a gaping hole in the narrative — I for one was utterly baffled that Margo’s folks didn’t seem too concerned when their teenage daughter goes astray — and the only people who seem to speak into the lives of these kids, and influence their choices, are other tykes their own age. Possibly an insight on contemporary family living, or a warning sign for parents to get more involved in the lives of their children, the deficiency of any adult wisdom does leave a void in this otherwise engaging script. On an interesting side note, the title, Paper Towns — a term most commonly used in cartography — refers to the deliberately incorrect fictitious entries — known as paper towns or ghost worlds — that map makers often include on their geographic diagrams; sometimes they’re added in for fun, but other times the motivation behind these entries is to detect plagiarism or copyright infringement. In the film however, the expression Paper Towns speaks about Margo’s disillusion and disenchantment with present-day middle-class American life, where she feels that everything in today’s suburban society is soulless, artificial and two dimensional — though thankfully, the movie is none of the above.

Partners in Crime
Partners in Crime

While by no means an ‘instant teen classic,’ Paper Towns is an enjoyable little ditty about the ups-and-downs of growing up, one that arises as a satisfying, engaging and entertaining feat, empowering the ‘now’ generation with a raw cinematic voice. Gorgeously shot, with ritzy indie influenced MTV visuals, and elevated by top-notch performances by its young stars — most notably Delevingne — Paper Towns, trying its best to avoid cliché and predictability, explores the transitional issues many teens endure as they ripen into fully-developed individuals, highlighting the fact that ‘wonders’ can often be found in the most mundane and routine of places within our everyday lives; sometimes, one just needs to look a little harder to notice them.

3.5 / 5 – Great

Reviewed by S-Littner

Paper Towns is released through 20th Century Fox Australia