Paper Towns (Jake Schreier, 2015)
The teen drama is a fickle beast. One minute it has your heart bursting with nostalgia, and then the next has you groaning at the utter lameness captured by the screenplay. And while this would often be put down to the screenwriter, recent releases would display a lack of consistency in this respect. Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber brought us a beauty in their adaptation of Tim Tharp’s The Spectacular Now, but there was no hiding lame dialogue in their screenplay of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. The pair have teamed up again to adapt Green’s Paper Towns, and the odds did not appear to be in their favour.
But lo and behold, Paper Towns fell into the first category. It made me want to be a teenager again. But an American one, because their rites of passage seem so much grander – we Aussies might have had our school formals in fancy venues, but there’s something about badly decorated school gymnasiums that makes the American prom something to be cherished. Even if they are usually all about popularity contests and people crying on the dancefloor. Not that the leads of Paper Towns are interested in prom (they’re too cool) but whatevs. High school was still the best. Even when it wasn’t.
Our protagonist, Quentin (Nat Wolff) has spent his entire adolescence pining after his next door neighbour, Margo (Cara Delevingne). She’s part of the popular crowd, but she treads her own path. One night she enlists Quentin’s help to be her driver while she seeks revenge on those friends who have wronged her. After a whirlwind night, Quentin is all the more besotted, because there’s no aphrodisiac quite like screwing other teenagers over and rejoicing in their misery. He arrives at school the next day, only to find that Margo isn’t there. After days turn into weeks, and Margo is still nowhere to be found, he follows a series of clues apparently left just for him in order to find THE GIRL.
Paper Towns captures the naïve optimism of adolescence, nervous excitement about the future, a desperate need to cling on to the last lazy days of high school, and the wonderful camaraderie between friends. On the surface, it is about one awkward guy’s search for the girl next door – a girl who he claims to love, without knowing much about her. It’s a familiar tale, but it doesn’t end up where you’d expect. And that makes it stand out head and shoulders above the rest of the field. Whereas The Fault in Our Stars contained characters who were overwhelmingly in love with each other to the point of nausea, Paper Towns has a point about the inherent problems in idolising someone from afar. Teens may even learn a thing or two from this one, and still enjoy a healthy dose of schmaltz at the same time.
The success of Paper Towns is bolstered by a fine cast, led by the the absurdly likeable Nat Wolff who continues his John Green connection after his supporting role in The Fault in Our Stars. He is well matched by Cara Delevingne in her breakout film role – who would’ve guessed that a supermodel could prove so visually differential from the usual beautiful girl next door. It must be the eyebrows. Delevingne is in fact absent from a great deal of the film, but is mesmerising in the few moments she’s onscreen. This would have been a completely different film if the original choice, Shailene Woodley, had been cast as Margo – she seems totally wrong for the role. As Quentin’s friends, Austin Abrams and Justice Smith are exactly what you want in a teen film, especially because THEY ACTUALLY LOOK LIKE REAL TEENAGERS. Halston Sage is so cookie cutter cute that she almost fades into oblivion, but her character is thankfully given a little more depth than similar characters tend to receive. Jaz Sinclair does well with a less developed character, who is literally just along for the ride.
Paper Towns starts and ends with a typical John Green monologue about how everyone gets their own miracle. It borders on some serious corn, but it manages to be heartfelt enough to make even an adult appreciate the sentiment. Together, Green and Neustadter and Weber prove a winning combination this time around. Who knows if it’s because there’s less crying and death compared to their last effort, but if they can keep making them like this, I’m prepared to eat it right up.