20th Century Fox
Rated PG-13 for some language, drinking, sexuality and partial nudity — all involving teens.
Running time: 109 minutes.
Three stars out of four.
“Paper Towns” is a movie that I really liked, but I probably would have loved if I’d seen it when I was 13. If it had come out when I was in high school, I would have felt like it was speaking directly to me, with its mixture of angst and restlessness, romance and melancholy.
It actually reminds me a lot of the movies I loved best back in the ’80s: those of the late, great, John Hughes. It’s a comparison I don’t make lightly. Based on the novel by John Green (and, mercifully, not a shameless weepy like his mega-best seller “The Fault in Our Stars”), director Jake Schreier’s film features all those classic teen-movie tropes. You’ve got members of a rigid social hierarchy stripping away their notions of each other, neighbors who climb into each others’ bedrooms through upstairs windows, late-night deep discussions and even the raging party at the rich, popular jock’s mansion. (Oh, and the most important part of all: a near-total lack of parental involvement.)
As a grown-ass person who’s seen a lot of movies in my life, I recognize all these elements and find them kind of derivative, albeit charmingly executed. What makes “Paper Towns” really work is the chemistry between its stars — all of whom get the opportunity, at one point or another, to say just the right poignant thing at just the right time. As in “The Fault in Our Stars,” which screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber also adapted, these kids are hyper-verbal and self-aware. And that’s OK — because that’s a crucial part of this particular kind of teen movie, too.
This is especially true of Cara Delevingne’s beguiling and mysterious central character, Margo. With her husky voice and quirky demeanor, the Victoria’s Secret model-turned-actress is essentially doing Emma Stone doing a manic pixie dream girl — or at least, that’s what the calculated mythology surrounding her character would suggest. Confident Margo moved in across the street from the sweetly geeky Quentin (a warm and deeply authentic Nat Wolff) when they were kids in suburban Orlando, Florida, and they became instant friends out of sheer proximity, if nothing else. Now they’re seniors in high school running in very different circles. Quentin remains sweetly geeky, but Margo has become even more of a force of nature: the rebellious and impossibly popular cool girl.
One night, though, she climbs through his window like old times and recruits him to help her with an elaborate revenge mission. Inherently cautious, but recognizing that this could be one of those Nights That Change Everything — and pathetically in love with Margo — he says yes to her meticulous itinerary of breaking and entering, vandalism, bodily harm and humiliation. It is indeed the Night That Changes Everything for Quentin. Then the next morning, Margo is gone.
And this is actually the point at which “Paper Towns” becomes more compelling. The self-consciousness of Margo and Quentin’s analytical banter — she’s the one who gives the film its title in a monologue about superficiality — gives way to legitimate self-discovery in her absence. In true manic pixie dream girl fashion, reminiscent of the journey Kirsten Dunst sets Orlando Bloom on at the end of “Elizabethtown,” Margo leaves a series of clues for Quentin as to her whereabouts. A scavenger hunt around town evolves into a road trip to upstate New York, but what gives this adventure both smarts and heart is the fact that Quentin brings his two best friends with him.
We’d gotten appealing glimmers of trash-talking Ben (Austin Abrams) and self-serious Radar (Justice Smith) leading up to this trip as they walk down the halls, chat in the band room or play video games at Quentin’s house. But the loveliness of their friendship and the effortlessness of their chemistry truly shines once they band together for this mission. All three are distinctly drawn and don’t feel like wacky adolescent types. They’re smart but also sensitive, and fiercely loyal to the others in a way they’re not afraid to show.
Also along for the ride are a couple of welcome and well-acted female figures: the beautiful and popular Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo’s best friend who’s desperate to know what’s become of her; and the strong-willed, no-nonsense Angela (Jaz Sinclair), Radar’s girlfriend, with whom he hopes to lose his virginity on prom night. (Ah yes, another teen-movie staple: prom, which is fraught with expectation and disappointment.)
Again, you may think you’ve seen all this before — and you have — but since we’re discussing cliches here, the journey truly is the destination, and this one may not necessarily head in all the directions you’d expect.