Director: Jake Schreier
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith
After the overwhelming success of The Fault in Our Stars, it was only a matter of time before another film adaptation of John Green’s popular ‘young adult’ books appeared on the big screen. Just over a year after The Fault in Our Stars was released, Paper Towns is here, riding on the success of it’s predecessor and the incredible popularity of Green’s novels. Will it be just as well received? Let’s find out!
Quentin’s (Wolff) life changed the moment free-spirited Margo Roth Spiegelman (Delevingne) moved in across the street. As carefree kids, they did everything together, until one day they found a dead body in the park. Whilst both affected, Margo seemed to become obsessed with finding out what happened to the mysterious man. Fast forward a few years, Margo and Quentin are about to graduate from high school and they have drifted apart. Margo is now the most popular girl in school and Quentin throws himself into his studies. One night out of the blue, Margo climbs through Quentin’s window as she requires his assistance on an elaborate revenge plot. Quentin has been quietly in love with Margo since the day they met so goes along with it. Feeling liberated and elated, Quentin goes to bed that night believing that things will be different between him and Margo. A few days later, Quentin finds out that Margo has disappeared, seemingly leaving a trail of clues behind her. Believing they were left specifically for him, Quentin sets out on the journey to piece together Margo’s clues and find her.
Paper Towns was not the film I was expecting but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing! I have read the book by John Green, and whilst there were notable differences (which I won’t go into in this review), there was a very distinct shift on the focus in the film. The book remains about Margo throughout, even when she is absent, however the film’s focus is instead on friendship, first loves, growing up and finding yourself. These are relatively common themes in young adult movies, but Paper Towns puts this across in a fresh and different way. The whole time we think the film is about Quentin finding Margo (and it is to some extent), but really it is about Quentin finding himself. Margo is the physical embodiment of the freedom, liberation and excitement that Quentin is searching for, but it is the journey he takes to find her which actually gives him these things.
The bittersweet twist on what we would normally expect to see in a “teen romance” film puts it just above The Fault in Our Stars which although great, was a lot more predictable. Take away the cancer element, and it ticks a lot more of the teen romance cliches. Paper Town’s ending might leave some people unsatisfied but it deserves credit for not doing the obvious. It is left as ambiguous and mysterious as Margo herself.
Whilst I think Wolff’s acting suffers a little when he is not opposite Delevingne, some of the other young actors deserve a lot of credit. Particularly Austin Abrams who plays Quentin’s friend Ben – he easily has the funniest lines in the film, and in the slightly less-interesting second act in the film, this is very welcome. Delevingne also does a great job as the enigmatic Margo Roth Spiegelman in her first major big screen role. Her deliberately restrained performance lends itself well to the closed and mysterious nature of the character she is playing. Margo isn’t the easiest character to like, yet as the object of Quentin’s affections, we need to see why he is so infatuated, so credit to Delevingne for being able to make the audience love and hate her at the same time.
I sometimes find references in teen films a little bit irritating when they’re put across in that very knowing “oh look we’re going to reference some obscure hipster band/novel/poem/film for the sake of it” way, but these all make sense with the plot of Paper Towns and are perfectly in keeping with Margo’s complex character. We jump straight from a Billy Bragg reference to a Walt Whitman poem, but they’re subtle and just form very small fragments of Margo’s clues. I also like the obscurity of the title, in that “paper towns” refers to the fact that cartographers would include fake or “paper” towns on their maps in order to prevent plagiarism. This probably seems an alien concept to today’s teens who have maps available at the touch of a button on smartphones, but again it isn’t there to prove a point or act clever, it is a small part of the overall plot and the themes which run through it; particularly the idea of trying to find something which isn’t really there.
It is the nature of the story, but it is unfortunate that Delevingne has so little screentime as she really shines in this film. She also brings more energy to the people around her, and as previously alluded to, Wolff’s acting seems a little stiff and bland when she isn’t on the screen with him. As he is in pretty much every scene, some bits in the middle drag, as he doesn’t have the most charismatic screen presence.
The film can be neatly broken down into three acts; the first is Margo and Quentin’s revenge plot, the second is Quentin and his friends trying to figure out the clues Margo has left behind, and the third is the journey to try and find Margo. The first and third acts are great, but the second drags just a little bit. Some of the clues seem to take too long to piece together, and the subplot about Quentin’s friends Ben and Radar (Smith) stressing about prom and girlfriends just isn’t that interesting. Maybe teens would be able to identify with this scenario a bit more, but I found myself just wishing they could get to the ‘trying to find Margo’ bit.
I saw this movie and you should too because it is smarter than your average teen movie, and one that will probably make you think a lot afterwards. The film has a clear message about how things which we perceive to be important can change over time and this is only realised through the journeys and paths we take through life. It’s about growing up and finding yourself along the way – it’s fun, clever and definitely worth a watch.
Agree with everything I’ve said, or am I a terribly misguided idiot who has got it all wrong? Please let me know in the comments, and don’t forget to share as well.