So, I guess John Green adaptations are going to be a thing now? It actually might not be a bad thing. Fault in Our Stars, while I still think it has several flaws, holds up surprisingly well since it came out. It’s basically an existentialist exploration of death through the eyes of teenagers disguised as a tragic love story. This time around we have Paper Towns, based on Green’s third novel. It follows Quentin (Nat Wolff); he is madly in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), a girl-next-door type that he’s known since he was a kid. Over the years, they have drifted apart, became part of different cliques at school, and it seemed to Quentin that him and Margo was a thing that was never going to happen. One night, she makes her way into his bedroom to have him help her take part in a revenge scheme against the people she once thought as her friends, after realizing her boyfriend cheated on her with her best friend. After having one of the best nights of his life, Margo has disappeared and Quentin decides to go find her with the help of his friends Ben Starling (Austin Abrams) and Marcus “Radar” Lincoln (Justice Smith).
I’ll admit I was not particularly excited to see this one mostly because of how weirdly bipolar the trailer was and also how it seemed to continue the tired use of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. To my surprise, the film is actually a smart and kind of brutal deconstruction of the MPDG trope, but it still works as a sweet coming-of-age film. To me, this film does mostly everything right that another teen movie this year, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, does wrong. For those who haven’t clicked away and are still reading, I am going to explain myself. My problem with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl was that not only was the main character deeply, deeply unlikeable, but I felt some of the storytelling and filmmaking choices conflicted with what the film was going for on a thematic level. These two movies are similar in that they revolve around a male character that experiences personal growth because of a female character that he doesn’t really see as a “person” since his perspective is essentially trapped in this box that prevents him from seeing things from everyone else’s point-of-view. While Paper Towns isn’t particularly subtle with its theming, it at least hits its notes with more efficiency and smarter understanding of cinematic language than M&E&TDG. For example, the whole section where Quentin and Margo are executing the revenge plan, it feels like you’re watching a music video, there’s lots of slow-motion shots, there’s a catchy pop song playing, it gives this other-worldly feeling that reinforces the theme of Quentin seeing Margo as an idea, loving that idea and indulging in that fantasy. It hits home later that it has always been a fantasy for him and he lacks an understanding of who she is and not just what she means to him. It is hard to get into too much detail since it would require me spoiling the final act of Paper Towns, but I will say that there is some genuinely smart stuff at work and it comes off as incredibly sincere and emotionally honest in ways that M&E&TDG was never able to pull off. Hell, even the black best friend in Paper Towns has far more dimension and personality than Earl did. But of course, Paper Towns doesn’t pander to film geeks like M&E&TDG does, so the response probably won’t be as good (I kid, I kid…kind of).
Like with Fault in Our Stars, I have some problems. All are small issues, one of which being the character of Ben Starling, who is clearly meant to be the comic relief of the movie, and I didn’t think he was that funny. Actually, most of the comedy in the film falls a bit flat. The only exception to this being Radar, who is the funniest character in the film, and his portrayal by Justice Smith is perfectly understated and deadpan. I also think the structure feels a bit off, starting off as a typical teen shenanigans movie to a mystery to a road trip movie. It’s quickly paced, moves really fast, which is good because it streamlines certain story developments really well, but bad in that other points could have been fleshed out better like the relationship between Ben and Margo’s friend, Lacey (Halston Sage), that comes almost out of nowhere. There’s nothing that breaks the story or go against the themes.
After seeing Paper Towns, I think that John Green (or at least the “brand” of John Green, since he isn’t too heavily involved, creatively speaking, in these films) is the closest we’ll get to a modern day John Hughes, and Paper Towns is the closest coming-of-age film that evokes the same empathetic look at teenage struggles that John Hughes’ films have. At the very least, Paper Towns never feels the need to constantly reference Hughes’ work like other recent teen movies (I’m looking at you Easy A!). The two important element that I think John Green does perfectly is to, one, capture that confused and frustrated sense of melancholy that teenagers feel as they near adulthood and realizing who they are and what their place is. And two, be very much of their time while exploring universal and timeless themes. Hughes’ films are timeless in his themes, but not necessarily in style and content. In his day, you can get away with writing a character like “Long Duk Dong.” With John Green, and my knowledge being limited to the two stories that have been adapted to film, he also deals in themes that can stand the test of time, but he explores them within the context of millennials. He tells his stories through their lens the same way Hughes told his stories through the lens of teens in the 80s. There really isn’t that much different in their approach, and if Paper Towns is of any indication, Green has a chance of being to this generation to what Hughes was to people growing up in the 80s. Just look at the numbers that Fault in Our Stars brought in, there’s clearly something in teenagers that he hits, that they relate to in some way or find a sense of understanding in a way that speaks to their level.
Paper Towns is directed by Jake Schreier. You might not recognize, but you may have heard of his previous film, which was also his debut, Robot & Frank. It’s an oddball of a movie (and also really good, by the way, you should totally watch it) where he is able to find and really hone in on the heart of the story, and he basically does the same thing here. He is working off a screenplay by the duo Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the same guys behind (500) Days of Summer, The Spectacular Now and (surprise, surprise) The Fault in Our Stars. Obviously they are in familiar territory, and not just because they’re doing another John Green adaptation, but (500) Days of Summer was also a deconstruction of the MPDG trope, albeit a bit more subtle than Paper Towns. They still show a clear understanding of the material and why it works, why it resonates and keeps things as focused as possible. Also, I should give credit to David Lanzenberg, the director of photography, who with only a handful of films to his credit (Celeste & Jesse Forever, The Signal and The Age of Adaline), shows a lot of promise as an up-and-coming cinematographer. And like any teen movie worth its salt, it has a pretty great soundtrack that it makes good use of.
The film is also supported by really strong performances, and yes that even includes Austin Abrams as Ben, sure he may have annoyed me, but he did genuinely remind of a few people I knew in high school, so I give credit where credit is due. Nat Wolf does really well as a lead; he has a solid, likeable on-screen presence, even if he does tend to mumble a number of his lines. Cara Delevingne is practically a revelation, giving one of the best model-turned-actor debuts I’ve seen in a long time. She and Justice Smith come out of this with the most potential for future projects, just based on how well they did here. Jaz Sinclair plays a relatively minor role as Radar’s girlfriend, Angela, and she did a solid job at making a good impression with little material. Pretty much everyone gets a moment to shine and they deliver.
Paper Towns is admittedly rough around the edges in ways that prevent it from being a truly great film, but when it works, it really, really works. What I like about this, and to a degree with Fault in Our Stars as well, is how it balances the romanticizing the idealism of teenage years while also dealing with harsher truths that the characters are forced to experience in a way that is accessible, but not necessarily dumbed down. It speaks on a teenagers’ level, but not in a way that is pandering or cynical, it comes purely out of empathy. Are there elements of Paper Towns that I have seen before? Sure, but the film opens up its heart in a way that most teen movies don’t. It’s a thoughtful and honest film that treats its characters with love and respect. It may not end up on anyone’s Best of the Year list, but like with Fault in Our Stars, it will hold up and in time, get it’s due respect as an underappreciated gem in the coming-of-age genre. Oh, for any Fault in Our Stars fanatics out there, there is a cameo in this you will probably get a kick out of.