“Paper Towns” is not your typical teen romance. Based on the best selling novel by John Green (“Fault in Our Stars”), it has many predictable scenes, but captures an effective mix of today’s culture, universal teen angst and an element of mystery. Typically, teen flicks are as simplistic as an after-school special or contain non-stop gross-out raunch.
Featuring a competent ensemble cast, led by Nat Wolff, (“Fault in Our Stars”) as Quentin, a modest youngster in the Orlando suburbs, the breakout star is Cara Delevingne, as the enigmatic Margo, the neighbor girl hopelessly out of his league; maybe. As Quentin explains, “She loved mysteries so much, that she became one.”
The issues involve unrequited love, social clicks and coming of age, mostly addressed in an intelligent manner. Quentin’s friends include the requisite goofball Ben (Austin Abrams) and straight-laced nerd Radar (Justice Smith). Together, they support each other’s flaws and encourage each other’s success through the challenges of teen life.
The clichés are plentiful but the current cultural references offer an element of authenticity to the story. The buddies seem credible enough, but Margo takes the story to another level. Not to take anything away for Shailene Woodley, who was replaced (filming “Insurgent”), Delevingne fully exploits her first lead role as Margo.
Director Jake Schreier said her audition was “something special” and Green offered, “She understands Margo profoundly.” We felt she was sufficiently peculiar, fearless and rebellious for the role. As many childhood friends do, Quentin and Margo grew apart through the years. Now high school seniors, Margo treats Quentin to some risky business, clearly out of his comfort zone, for the night of his life.
As they admire the city view, Margo grumbles, “Everything is uglier up close.” Quentin snaps back, “Except you.” The next day, Margo disappears and “Q” realizes he may be the last to have seen her. He better understands the gravity of the situation when the police start asking questions. Suddenly, all the silliness has turned to urgency. His friends and even the cool kids now see him in a different light. Life has changed.
As Quentin self-narrates the story in a “Wonder Years” tone, we conclude Margo is no Winnie Cooper. We’re into a very different outcome. But Margo is a fan of mysteries, so Quentin and the audience can search for clues to her whereabouts. As each cryptic clue is deciphered, the friends start their own adventure, including an exhilarating road trip.
At this point, the film starts to unravel into trite clichés, contrived plot holes and forced humor. However, if you’re invested in the premise and the likeable actors, these parts are still somewhat humorous, moving and entertaining. More important, the set-up is necessary to draw the not-so-tidy conclusions to this story of love and friendship.
The story opens and closes with Q narrating that life gives us one miracle; and this is a story about his. It takes place in Orlando, but was filmed near Charlotte in about five days. The script references a scene at SeaWorld, which was omitted in the movie due to the recent bad publicity on the topic, which screenwriter Scott Neustadter (“Fault in Our Stars” and “(500) Days of Summer”) felt could detract from the story.
“Paper Towns” is 109 minutes and rated PG-13 for language, drinking and sexuality involving teens. The bromance of the three buds makes a good story. Q’s crush on Margo is a worthy storyline. And, the title’s metaphor isn’t astounding, but welcome. However, Margo’s disappearance and where that story leads is somewhat special.
The smart and moving script ventures beyond the usual. Most of us have comfort zones that have served us well. Venturing outside that zone can generate excitement and exhilaration, but can also lead to trouble. After this movie, we now plan to be much more spontaneous and may put it on the calendar for sometime next week.
Ron’s Rating: B Leigh’s Rating: B