D: Jake Schreier / 109m
Cast: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono
Ever since Margo Roth Spiegelman (Delevingne) moved in across the street from Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Wolff) when they were kids, Quentin has looked on her as his one true love. But even though they grew up together as friends, and spent a great deal of time together, they’ve drifted apart and no longer even acknowledge each other in high school. All that changes however when, one night, Margo comes in through Q’s bedroom window and asks to borrow a car. She tells him that she has nine things she needs to do that night (some of which are illegal), and she needs his help. Reluctant at first, Q agrees to help her, and they take his mother’s car and head to the nearest Costco.
There they pick up various supplies including duct tape, a lot of Saran wrap, and a raw catfish. Margo explains that she’s out to get revenge on her boyfriend and her close friends; her boyfriend has been cheating on her with one of her friends, and at least one more friend knew it was happening and didn’t say anything. As the night progresses, and they play prank after prank, it becomes more and more like the times they spent together as kids, and Q finds his attraction for Margo rekindled. The next day though there’s no sign of Margo; a few more days pass before it becomes clear that Margo has disappeared.
Q is certain that Margo has left for a reason and that she wants to be found. He bribes her younger sister to look for clues in her bedroom. A Walt Whitman quote leads Q to finding a note with an address on it. With his friends Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams), he goes there and finds an abandoned store but they don’t find another clue. The next day, Q is approached by Lacey (Sage), one of Margo’s friends who is concerned about what’s happened to her. When the boys go back to the abandoned store she follows them there, and the four of them discover an atlas with a page torn out, a page that indicates Margo has gone to a small town in upstate New York called Agloe.
Q decides to throw caution to the wind and travel to Agloe. His friends, and Lacey, all agree to go with him, but only as long as they can get back in time for the upcoming prom. Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Sinclair), comes along with them. Along the way they have a near-miss with a cow that sees their car spin off the road. Stranded for the night, Ben and Lacey develop a fondness for each other, while Radar and Angela pre-empt the plans they have for after the prom. The next day, with the car repaired, they finally make it to Agloe, but what they find there isn’t exactly what Q expected…
A teen romance where the romance is potentially illusory, and a teen drama where the drama is assembled through the filter of a mystery, Paper Towns is a heartfelt ode to teenage longing and seizing the moment. It features several moments where it seems the narrative is being forced along by contrivance and crude coincidence, but the movie has the presence of mind to excuse itself by a trick of the very same narrative. This is to do with the clues Margo has left behind, and the way in which Q responds to them, but as they are the crux of the matter – even more so than Q and Margo’s relationship – it’s hard to imagine the movie working out in any other way, faithful as it is to the structure and tone of John Green’s novel.
However, what is difficult to pin down successfully in the novel is also difficult to pin down in the movie. Q’s commitment/devotion/attachment to Margo is never quite believable, despite Wolff’s compelling performance, and hinges on that one night of prankdom that in itself seems unlikely. Some viewers might not be too concerned by Margo’s appearance in Q’s room after so long, but it’s hard to believe that after so long “apart” that she would rekindle their friendship, and then make it so memorable for Q before disappearing. And Q’s disappointment only lasts until it becomes clear that Margo has run away, but instead of feeling taken advantage of, he becomes certain she wants him to find her. All of which begs the question, is Q just lovesick, or a stalker in training?
Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter’s adaptation does its best to portray Q’s search for Margo as the grand romantic gesture it appears to be, but the script never manages to make his obsession credible or based on anything but an intellectual challenge (can he find her from the clues she’s left behind?). As a result, and again despite Wolff’s engaging portrayal, Q comes across as a loyal puppy dog willing to do whatever he believes his mistress wants him to do. So wedded to the idea of his being with Margo does Q become that a more appropriate liaison with Lacey is quickly nipped in the bud by pairing her off with Ben, a relationship that would be more credible in a Revenge of the Nerds movie.
In the end the movie’s central concept is that we – or more particularly Q – should live for the moment, and create our own dreams instead of following someone else’s, and while this is a tenet that’s worth taking to heart, here it follows in the footsteps of too many other teen dramas to be either relevant or anything other than jaded. But thanks to its gifted cast, and a sense of fun that is more appealing than the drama that occupies centre stage, the movie is by no means a chore to watch, and features warm, soothing cinematography by David Lanzenberg, and a charming score by Son Lux. Schreier’s direction is unobtrusive for the most part, and with the help of Wolff and Delevingne he imbues the scenes between Q and Margo with a sense of unspoken yet mutual affection that is entirely touching.
Rating: 7/10 – in many respects a missed opportunity, Paper Towns has a superficial fascination that draws in the viewer but will leave them feeling less than fully satisfied by the movie’s end; competently made but missing that vital spark needed to make the material sing, it has another delightful performance from Wolff, and gives Delevingne the chance to shine in what is the movie’s most important, and unexpectedly fascinating, supporting role.