Paper Towns

Posted by Joel Copling on July 23, 2015

Eleven years ago, Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), who prefers to be called by the first letter of his first name, met his idea of a blue-moon miracle in the form of Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the kind of alluring enigma we all secretly want to meet and fall in love with at least once in our uninteresting lives. This enigma, which leads to a puzzle that might be slightly less interesting than screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adapting another novel by John Green) might believe it to be, but there is wisdom found elsewhere in "Paper Towns" and enough of it to paper over the patchier elements of the central mystery. This is, ultimately, about the complexities of exiting high school, an crossroads that the film gets pretty spot-on.

The central mystery develops after the set of events in the film's middle section sees Margo storming through Quentin's window in the middle of the night to recruit him to help her with something, and I suppose I should pause before setting the stage for the mystery to tell you readers what that is. Margo's boyfriend Jase (Griffin Freeman) has been cheating on her for some time with one of her own friends, and Margo's best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and her boyfriend are among those who new and never told Margo. Her night of revenge has a sort of mischievous glee to it as she lays waste to property (such as to the cars of both Lacey and Jase and the right eyebrow of the friend's boyfriend) and reputation (with Jase's infidelity becoming known fact around the school in no time), even if it is sort of petty (points for using Vampire Weekend's "Diplomat's Son," too).

The point solidifies itself in the final minutes and within the answer to the mystery: This is Margo's idea of a crossroads after years of complacency in a life from which she feels disconnected. But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself there. Margo disappears from the film until the final ten minutes, leaving Quentin clues that bring him from his hometown of Orlando to where she might be. The clues themselves are a stretch conceptually--mostly vague references that would never realistically take this little time to thread together--but the heart of the film lies elsewhere anyway, so it's not much of a disappointment that the thing is ultimately a plot device for Quentin's growth.

Most importantly, the film understands how to stick the landing. There is a conflicting movie peering out from behind a more stable one, but that stable one is less plot-driven and more literally driven along on a road trip that Quentin takes with four friends--Lacey (who, it turns out, is innocent in all this), Ben (Austin Abrams), Radar (Justice Smith), and Radar's longtime girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair). It's the film's best segment, perhaps, until that final stretch, simultaneously bittersweet (as Ben in particular comes to terms with the end of high school and the closeness of his current friendships) and amusing (including the best bad Confederate flag joke you'll ever see, notwithstanding unfortunate timing). Genuine movement within these characters' lives and worldviews happens within this road trip (such as almost the entire arc of a budding romantic relationship between two of the party, as well as realization of just how fleeting, in the long run, prom actually is, whatever the memories that remain), and director Jake Schreier handles it all with gentleness.

The actors (two of them, in the cases of Smith and Sinclair, in auspicious debut performances) are the biggest reason why "Paper Towns" works as well as it does. Delevingne has the toughest job as Margo, both in how closed-off she is in personality and disposition and in the fact that she's not onscreen for so long, but meets the challenge and exceeds any expectation on her part. Wolff is the natural MVP of the cast, having almost all the leg work and delivering on the promise of the actor's previous supporting roles. Sage is also a delight when playing off Abrams (A reference to a certain late-90s anime series is cute). "Paper Towns" balances its focus nicely so that the benign mystery of enigmatic true love plays second fiddle to more important matters of the heart.

Film Information

Nat Wolff (Quentin), Austin Abrams (Ben), Justice Smith (Radar), Cara Delevingne (Margo), Halston Sage (Lacey), Jaz Sinclair (Angela), Cara Buono (Mrs. Jacobsen), Griffin Freeman (Jase).

Directed by Jake Schreier and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, based on the novel by John Green.

Rated PG-13 (language, drinking, sexuality, partial nudity).

109 minutes.

Released on July 24, 2015.