Four stars. Rated PG-13, for mild profanity, partial nudity and teen sexuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 7.24.15
Today’s teens continue to live in great times, with respect to movies that speak to their experiences.
|When Margo (Cara Delevingne) entices Quentin (Nat Wolff) to help her during a late-night|
bit of "payback," their first stop is a big-box store, where he grows increasingly nervous
over the unusual items that get tossed into the shopping basket.
Best of all, we’re getting solid, respectful adaptations of existing books, graced with thoughtful, multi-faceted storylines by authors who understand the importance of plot logic, character development and — wait for it — subtlety.
As opposed to, say, this week’s other high-profile release: the bombastic, über-dumb Pixels.
Paper Towns comes from the pen of best-selling teen-lit author John Green, whose most recent novel, The Fault in Our Stars, brightened movie screens last summer. Paper Towns is an earlier work; it’s also a quieter, mildly sneaky narrative that builds to a somewhat unexpected conclusion ... albeit one that feels just right, in hindsight.
The sensitive, finely tuned screenplay comes from Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who certainly know the territory; aside from having scripted The Fault in Our Stars last year, in 2013 they also delivered a poignant adaptation of Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now.
Paper Towns is cut from different cloth, most visibly because it doesn’t concern emotional damaged or terminally ill characters. The teens populating this Florida suburb are reasonably ordinary, and in a way that’s the crux of the narrative: None of us wishes an ordinary life, particularly not as a teen. We all hope for something extravagant: or, in the words of our protagonist, the “one miracle” to which he figures everybody is entitled.
In the case of adolescent Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Josiah Cerio), living in the outskirts of Orlando, his miracle arrives when Margo Roth Spiegelman (Hannah Alligood) and her family move into the house across the street. Just like that, Quentin is smitten. Proximity turns them into bike-to-school buddies, but Quentin soon discovers that Margo is a wild child, whose adventurous nature eventually exceeds his comfort zone.
She’s ... disappointed. She doesn’t exactly say or do anything, but young Alligood’s gaze reflects gentle censure, perhaps even betrayal.
Flash-forward to the present day, toward the end of everybody’s senior year in high school. Quentin (now Nat Wolff) and Margo (Cara Delevingne) have drifted apart, become all but strangers. She has cultivated a semi-scandalous reputation, replete with wild stories passed within the school corridors.
Quentin hangs with best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith). All three exist on the fringes of peer acceptability, comfortable in their geekiness but wholly aware that they’ve never been — and never will be — counted among the “cool kids.” They spend most of their off hours in the school music room, rarely partaking in the usual teen-oriented social activities.
As Radar tellingly observes, at one point, when Quentin objects to the accusation that they’ve never attended a party, “It’s not a party if there’s a tuba.” (A killer line, that: one of several in Neustadter and Weber’s script.)
Radar, perhaps surprisingly, has a girlfriend: the adorable Angela (Jaz Sinclair, in a sparkling performance). Ben, definitely the nerdiest and most socially inept of these three musketeers, fabricates wild tales of previous conquests, much to the others’ amusement; he wouldn’t know what to do with a girl if she came gift-wrapped.
Quentin continues to pine for Margo.
Then, late one evening, she pops in through his upstairs bedroom window, just as she frequently did years earlier. She invites him on a night of adventure: a mission designed to, in her words, “right some wrongs ... and wrong some rights.”
Quentin hesitates, no doubt remembering what happened the last time he refused one of her impulsive suggestions. Then he capitulates, having no idea what to expect, and despite his fear of consequences.
The resulting night of covert rash acts, mildly larcenous behavior and even slight peril proves exhilarating; the details are much too droll and audacious to be revealed here. But the escapade proves bonding, at least in Quentin’s eyes: a connection re-established with the girl he has idolized for so many years.
Which leaves him rather puzzled, the next day, when Margo fails to attend school. Nor does she show up the day after, or the day after that. She has, in fact, disappeared: an incident serious enough for her parents to summon official assistance.
At this point, if only fleetingly, it’s tempting to compare this plot twist with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, but the emotional elements are completely different; these aren’t shallow, self-absorbed characters, and — needless to say — Green isn’t traveling in such nasty territory. But Margo’s vanishing act is every bit as mysterious, every bit as troubling.
But she’s always been a clever girl, with the known habit of dropping little hints and clues about her activities and behavior: a trail of cryptic bread crumbs, as with the way she writes notes with a peculiar mixture of upper- and lower-case letters. Quentin therefore becomes convinced that if he can find the right clues, he can figure out where Margo is hiding. Better still, he’s certain that this is a test of sorts: an idiosyncratic “final exam” which, if he solves it, will prove that he’s once again worthy of Margo’s attention.
Ben and Radar are in for the challenge; after a bit, they’re joined by Angela and Lacey (Halston Sage), the latter Margo’s longtime best friend.
What follows has the larkish feel of the Spielbergian escapades found in Young Indiana Jones or The Goonies ... but not quite. This quest is resolutely real-world, even when it blossoms into an ambitious road trip. And this is where the subtle nature of Green’s narrative becomes clear, as we gradually realize that the journey will be far more important than whatever awaits at the final destination.
Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age saga, replete with all the angst, regret and anticipation that one associates with the transition from high school to ... whatever comes next. But it’s more than that, as indicated by the title of Green’s novel. A “paper town” is a deliberately fictitious map entry, inserted to detect copyright infringement; in other words, it’s something that isn’t what it appears to be ... just as people always are more complex than an initial impression might suggest.
Teenagers are particularly cruel, in this respect: Peers are categorized on day one, never to be granted another opportunity to shade such a snap judgment, let alone correct it. This is a curse Ben knows all too well, having long endured an embarrassing and undeserved reputation: the reason, no doubt, that he has abandoned any effort at “normal” behavior.
But it’s not just Ben, and it’s not just Quentin and his habitually “safe” approach to life. Similar clues and revelations are present through this film, which — as a result — will reward repeat viewing, to re-visit earlier events with the knowledge of what is to come.
Wolff makes an engaging protagonist, rising smoothly to leading man status after his memorable supporting turn as Gus’ best friend Isaac, in the film version of The Fault in Our Stars. Wolff has a nice way with slow takes and glances that convey a blend of amused curiosity and wariness.
Smith, in an accomplished big-screen feature debut, gives Radar notable depth: Yes, he’s geeky, but he’s also sweet and solicitous — particularly during scenes shared with Sinclair’s Angela — and can become firmly serious, if a situation warrants.
Sage’s Lacey is perky and impulsive; we initially dismiss her — as do Quentin and his friends — as one of the school’s stuck-up “cute girls,” but she surprises us (as is the point, of course). Abrams is appropriately wild ’n’ crazy as a self-appointed class clown, but we see the occasional flashes of pain in his eyes, and we wonder how much of this role is self-defense.
The British Delevingne, a fashion model perhaps recognized as the face of Burberry’s Beauty campaign, is making a reasonable transition to acting. Her Margo is intended to be iconic and not quite real, and Delevingne certainly projects that ethereal nature.
Ansel Elgort, so memorable as Gus in The Fault in Our Stars, pops up here in a droll cameo.
Adult viewers are likely to wonder how all these teens can embark on such escapades (absent for days?) with apparently limitless financial resources and no parental repercussions, and those are eyebrow-raising details. But this film’s target audience likely won’t notice, and certainly won’t care.
Director Jake Schreier earned this assignment on the basis of his carefully crafted work in 2012’s Robot and Frank, where he drew rich and expressive performances from veteran actors Frank Langella and Susan Sarandon. He does the same here, with editor Jacob Craycroft cutting key moments just so: an effective blend of thoughtful two- and three-shots, and brief close-ups.
You’ll likely leave the theater feeling wistful, perhaps considering your own paths not taken, or lamenting long-ago personal judgments that you knew, even then, weren’t entirely fair. Which is the desired outcome, of course ... for what can be better than a film that makes us stop and think about our own selves?