Right on schedule, essentially one year post-The Fault in Our Stars mania took hold of so many teens and cinemagoers last year, a new John Green adaptation is set to premiere around the world; Paper Towns. While I have not read Paper Towns, nor seen The Fault in Our Stars, I was excited to see Jack Schreier’s (Robot & Frank) adaptation of the former, and while the idiosyncrasies from his directorial debut is all but gone, Paper Towns is still refreshingly fun and altruistic in all its clichés and familiarity.
In Paper Towns we follow Quentin (Nat Wolff), an introverted – but not entirely reclusive – teenage boy who is obsessed with the-girl-next-door; Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). In their childhood they had a close relationship – going on secret adventures initiated by Margo as she would knock on Quentin’s bedroom window in the middle of the night – but as they grew older, they simultaneously grew apart. Now, many years later, Margo reappears in Quentin’s window to exact vengeance on the people who betrayed her. The morning after their reunion-adventure, Margo disappears. Following a set of clues left behind by Margo, Quentin decides to track her down to confess his love. This leads to a road-trip with his best friends, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), as well as Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and a Miss. Popular-girl, Lacy (Halston Sage), who is concerned for Margo.
It is a familiar story; one we’ve seen countless times before. It is immediately recognizable as a classic and dependable coming-of-age tale, as much as your typical road-trip movie. The entire story is well-rooted in the genre tropes and clichés that accompany this type of young adult literature, and it never explicably tries to cut itself loose from it. Even so; the movie as a whole feels surprisingly fresh and fun. It comes down to the chemistry between the actors, and the overall performances from the diverse cast. Nat Wolff conveys the same sense of adolescent innocence as he did in Gia Coppola’s Palo Alto (review), albeit the characters he portrays are polar opposites. He is convincing as the introverted high-schooler who’s head-over-heels in love, and extrudes a certain sense of maturity in the more demanding scenes. Model-singer-and-all-around-awesome-person-turned-actress, Cara Delevingne is also impressive, and does a lot with her limited screen-time. Margo is a mystery, in no small part because of her tendency for self-mythologization. It seems not even her closest friends know who she really is; what she wants, what she cares about, or whom. Delevingne embodies all this exceptionally well. She oozes confidence, but never is she too presumptuous, and it is easy to empathise with everyone who’s entranced by her.
The crème de la crème, however, is the chemistry between the road-trippers. My initial scepticism towards the many cast members was dispelled in the first few minutes on the road, as it was either painlessly funny – mostly thanks to the actors, as the script does suffer at points – or poignant as certain characters grow a lot on this trip. There’s also a short scene that will attract a lot of notoriety for unsolicited reasons; Quentin runs into a gas station to buy t-shirts for the crew, as they are short on time and in need of new apparel, and it isn’t until Radar – who is black – puts on his t-shirt that Quentin (and the audience) realises what it says; “Heritage Not Hate” is written in red bold letters above the Confederate Flag. It’s a quick, and in my opinion, hilarious sequence – the innocent and non-provocative nature of it is refreshing in todays culture – but it’s relevancy in this exact time and point is only coincidental. It may work in its favor, or it may not. The reason a joke like that feels innocent and non-provocative comes down to how it is played out, and how the characters in question react, and again, the natural chemistry between them all is evident.
I did not expect to like Paper Towns as much as I ended up doing. It’s utterly conventional – you’ll see nothing new here – but it still manages to feel fresh and entertaining throughout. While it is clearly for a target audience, Schreier manages to infuse it with some charm and charisma otherwise not seen in these types of movies, and for that, it deserves your attention.