Director: Jake Schreier (Robot & Frank)
Writer: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber, John Green (novel)
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running time: 109 min.
There’s a moment in the third act of Paper Towns where I felt like looking away, rolling up into a tight ball, putting my head to my knees and just rocking back and forth until the pain of the truth went away. I remember being a teenager confronted by the reality of one sided love. It took me longer than a few hours to get over the rejection and realization that there was more to the world than being turned away by long-time crush. In that moment, during that confrontation between Quentin and his best pal Ben, that memory came rushing back like it had just happened yesterday.
You may never have read a John Green novel but chances are your teenage daughter has. Green has turned into the unlikely voice of a generation or perhaps more accurately, a guy in his late 30’s who can talk to a generation of teens in a way they can both understand and relate to (or as The New Yorker put it “The Teen Whisperer”). That has translated into success at the box office and while Paper Towns doesn’t induce an emotional breakdown complete with tears and snot, it does hit home in a more poignant way. At least for adults. I’m not sure how well a movie set in today’s high school climate but which makes zero reference to social media, will play with teens.
Paper Towns feels a lot like a John Hughes movie. In familiar teen movie trope style, the kids can be boiled down to one label; the jock, the geek, the pretty one. They’re all characters we know or knew in our day and the way they come together is both ludicrous and charmingly believable. Who doesn’t want adventure in their last weeks of high school? In this case, the adventure unfolds as Quentin and his friends go on a two day road trip to New York State in search of Margo Roth Spiegelman; one of the most popular girls in school and Quentin’s long time crush, who has simply vanished. The movie takes a bit of time to get going – the set-up of Quentin and Margo’s history and their last night together spreads over the first half in a sprawling, mildly interesting way but once the crew decides on the road trip, Paper Towns really finds its groove.
A lot of fuss has been made about Cara Delevingne, the model-turned-actress making her debut here, and she’s perfect for the role: a mix of sexy vixen and down-to-earth girl-next-door who seems a little too cool for everyone but when it comes right down to it, is just as lost and confused as everyone else. She’s also far more selfish than the friends who go in search of her. Nat Wolff is also great casting as the big dreamer who thinks he’ll end up with the girl if he just puts himself out there. This naivite is in part what makes Paper Towns memorable, the other, and perhaps what makes Green’s stories in particular, unique, is that it’s not all happy endings. The adaptations have something in common: they’re stories with moments of joy, sadness and self discovery mixed in. Perhaps that’s what makes them feel so much more authentic than the typical teen romances/coming of age tales that end with the geek and the cool girl dating, getting married and living happily ever after. Green’s stories are just hard enough to be relatable while not being total downers.
Growing up is hard, full of ugly truths that often challenge us and make us reconsider… well, everything. Paper Towns takes a while to get through the crusty, familiar outer shell but the chewy centre? It’s pretty sweet and well worth the effort it takes to get to.
Paper Towns opens Friday, July 24.