Almost every high school graduating class gets a coming of age film. From The Breakfast Club to Clueless to Ten Things I Hate About You to a lot of other less good movies, the “end of high school and things will never be the same” ground is well trodden. Paper Towns looks in many ways like one among the many – trendy haircuts, party scene, prom consternation, cool indie soundtrack – but it has a secret weapon. And that weapon is young adult author John Green.
John Green wrote the novel (also called Paper Towns) upon which this film is based, and in addition to having a built-in and exceptionally fervent fan base, he has a reputation for offering the YA crowd a more realistic and complex view of the world. His storytelling combined with the work of director Jake Schreier – and especially screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – add up to a movie that while not perfect, has a charming and slightly different take on the final weeks of high school.
The film begins with the familiar tale of two childhood neighbors and best friends, Margo and Quentin (Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff) who drifted down different paths somewhere around middle school. Margo’s road led her to outlandish adventure and high school popularity, and Quentin ended up on the more common “no one wants to peak in high school anyway” route. But Margo is, in Quentin’s mind, the great miracle of his life, so when she drops back through his window one night looking for help with a revenge plot, Quentin hesitates only briefly before signing on for a night of chaos and heart-pounding adventure.
In a lot of movies, that night would be the entire two-hour plot, but in Paper Towns, it’s only the first act. The next day, Margo disappears (likely of her own accord). The second and third acts entail Quentin’s search for her, following the clues she left behind with the support of his fantastic friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith).
The biggest hurdle the film has to overcome is convincing the audience that Margo is worth all of the time and effort Quentin spends trying to chase her. She’s ignored him for years, after all, and when she finally comes back, she’s asking for help, and she spends most of the night dispensing orders and “wiser than thou” condescension about his dreams and plans. Many viewers will be inclined to wonder why he doesn’t just let her disappear and follow a simpler path that leads to a cool nerdy girl instead of Woody Guthrie, abandoned warehouses, and a whole lot of frustration. But what kind of a lovelorn hero would he be then?
Wolff’s strong performance as Quentin is the best chance Schreier has to convince audiences that it doesn’t matter if we understand why he’s looking so hard for Margo. The innocent and naïve certainty that comes only with first love, the smitten disbelief on has face after their night of adventuring, the phony voice he uses to convince his friends that the search for Margo isn’t a waste of time and truancy: all these pieces will sell the value of the journey to much of the audience. We may not understand why Quentin is searching for Margo, but he knows, and that’s mostly enough.
More importantly, as Quentin’s view of Margo evolves, so does ours. By the end of the film, both the audience and Quentin have learned that we can’t hold Margo accountable for the way Quentin sees her. We might even forgive her a little if she’s not quite worth the chase.
The high points – and the best chemistry – in the film belong to the scenes between Quentin and his friends Radar and Ben. The friendship seems trusty and true to the adolescent experience, and the reactions to various requests, clashes and conflicts are real. There’s also an interesting push and pull between the comfortable version of Quentin who plays video games with his friends, and the newly adventurous Quentin, inspired by the hunt for Margo. Figuring out whether those two parts can be compatible is a major part of Quentin’s journey through the film.
The movie moves quickly, primarily because Neustadter and Weber have put so much action into 109 minutes. By condensing and combining a romantic mystery, a coming of age high school story, and a road trip comedy into one film, Paper Towns moves along without at a steady clip. But it also never feels rushed. The writing is snappy and funny, and the supporting cast, especially Smith and Abrams, ensure that there’s always a joke or a Black Santa subplot (no, really) to engage us when the path to finding Margo goes cold or flat.
Paper Towns isn’t destined to fall in the category of The Breakfast Club, or even probably Ten Things I Hate About You. But it’s warm and funny without being saccharine, and the team behind it genuinely respects their audience. It’s by no means perfect, but the class of 2015 (and anyone else who’s a sucker for a midsummer romance/buddy/road trip flick) could do much worse.