Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Jake Schreier
Stars: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevigne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Cara Buono, Griffin Freeman.
It’s good to come across a Young Adult tale that is actually grounded in a reality that audiences can relate to rather than being taken to a dystopian futuristic society or some fantasy world populated by wizards, witches, dungeons and dragons. Paper Towns is a mix of road journey, teenage romance and coming of age tale, but it cleverly avoids many of the usual cliches of the genre. The film is based on the novel written by best selling author John M Green, who previously gave us The Fault In Our Stars, an unashamed and deliberately weepy drama about a doomed romance with a teen dying of cancer.
Adapted for the screen by the writing team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber (who previously gave us the superior teen romances 500 Days Of Summer, The Spectacular Now and The Fault In Our Stars) this is a bittersweet but quirky teen film that is both engaging and entertaining.
The central protagonist here is Quentin Jacobsen (played with enormous appeal by Nat Wolff, who had a supporting role in The Fault In Our Stars), a shy, socially awkward 17-year-old straight A student. Since he was nine, Quentin has been infatuated with Margo Roth Spiegelman (former model Cara Delevigne), the enigmatic girl who moved in across the street. Quentin and Margo were inseparable as youngsters, sharing many adventures. But then they went to high school, and the popular and rebellious Margo drifted away from Quentin, who was the quiet studious type.
But then one night, about a week before the Prom, Margo sneaks into Quentin’s bedroom and enlists his help in an adventure seeking revenge on her former boyfriend who has been cheating on her. For the first time in a long time Quentin actually feels alive and excited, and hopes that the friendship is about to be rekindled. But that feeling is short lived as the next day Margo has disappeared without telling anyone where she has gone. But Quentin believes that she has left behind a series of cryptic clues pointing him in the right direction and, somewhat impulsively and impetuously, he sets out on a quest to find her.
He is accompanied by his two best friends, the perpetually horny Ben (Austin Abrams), and the smart but reserved Radar (Justice Smith). Lacey (Halston Sage), who is Margo’s best friend, also joins them on the trip. During the trip the three boys get to know a bit more about their dreams and aspirations, and one of the boys will lose his virginity along the way. Although Quentin is obsessed with finding Margo, he fails to realise that Lacey is a much better match for him.
The road trip that follows takes them all the way to upstate New York. But the adventure is also overshadowed by the realisation that this may be one of the last times that they all get to spend time together for some time as they are all about to graduate from high school and head in their separate directions as they go off to college. Their friendship will never be quite the same again, and this gives the film a bittersweet and somewhat poignant quality. The themes of friendship and male bonding resonate strongly throughout the second half of the film.
The sympathetic direction from Jake Schreier (whose previous film was the quirky but delightful heist film Robot & Frank) gives the film a suitably melancholy feel. A great soundtrack of indie rock tunes accompanies the action.
It’s also good to see a film about high school kids in which the actors are also young enough to be entirely convincing in their roles. Wolff has an appealing presence and brings plenty of charm and a hint of vulnerability to his performance. For me though the standout character was Ben, a great character and the most memorable of the ensemble. Abrams is great and brings a touch of offbeat humour to his wining performance. And there is real chemistry between the three young boys that drives the film and keeps it likeable.
Although the character of Margo goes missing for much of the film, she still has a palpable presence that is keenly felt throughout. Delevigne is a former model who has had small roles in a number of films, but this is her breakthrough role and she brings a wonderful mix of strength and maturity to her performance. She shows that she is capable of handling more mature fare.
The title refers to the practice of cartographers of putting a fake town on their map to stop copyright infringements, but it also refers to that sense of disillusionment with suburban life that one of the characters feels, where everything feels soulless, fake, stifling and two dimensional. But thankfully Paper Towns itself never feels soulless or two dimensional. It contains realistic characters, and is nowhere near as manipulative as The Fault In Our Stars, although it may not appeal as broadly as that film.