Just a paper boy living in a paper town.
The frames we see in Paper Towns are the stuff of fantasies, the kind that we think about and dream of late at night in our bed while staring at the ceiling. It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. At one point, I was watching the movie and wondering if I was watching someone else’s story, or my own.
If we are watching someone else’s story, that someone is Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. Just about everything is regular to Q except for one thing: Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids.
Q and Margo are the epitome of opposites. Q is shy and introverted. Margo is confident and extroverted. Q likes to play it safe. Margo likes to take risks. Q likes to look ahead and plan for his next step. Margo thinks not knowing where you’ll end up is the most fun part of anything.
One day, Margo completely vanishes. Her parents, her friends, nobody knows where Margo may have gone. As time passes, however, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. A piece of paper in his door. A page torn out of a map. Writing on an old gas station wall that reads “You will go to the paper towns, and you will never come back.” Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.
The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film (with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars), Paper Towns is a truly unique and invigorating experience, refreshing in its comedy, in its drama, and in its truth. It reminds me so much of The Fault In Our Stars, and yet, it’s so different from it too.
I’ll start with the best thing from both movies: the characters. Green’s novels have such a unique way of making ordinary characters extraordinary, and that’s just as true with the movies as it is the books. Margo is a spur-of-the-moment, lively and rebellious teenager who serves as more or less an enigma of what adventures high school students fantasize about and aspire to. She’s almost too ecstatic to be believable as a character, and that’s exactly the point. As Q says it best in the movie, “It’s so silly, it can only be true.”
The moments where she takes Q on her midnight adventures are probably some of my favorite scenes in the movie. While Margo was pushing Q to get out of his comfort zone, I was reminded of a scene between the two leads from Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film Hugo.
Isabelle: We could get in trouble.
Hugo: That’s how you know it’s an adventure.
Every other supporting character is just as interesting and likeable as Margo is, however less mysterious. Q’s friends, Radar and Ben (Justice Smith and Austin Abrams), are the mischievous sort that talk about high school rumors and made up sex stories just like immature high school students do. Halston Sage portrays Margo’s best friend Lacey, and while she’s convincing and bubbly in the role, she’s a little too old to convincingly look like she’s still in high school. Most of the younger cast is ages 18 to 20. Sage is 22.
The one that most impresses me is Nat Wolff. Originally a supporting character in The Fault In Our Stars, here Wolff transitions front and center as the lead role in Paper Towns. His versatility as an actor is pitch-perfect here, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. Actors in these roles tend to overplay them, either with an over exaggeration of joy or sadness. Not Wolff. Hearing him crack his voice or watching his eyes tear up gets more of a reaction out of me than the overabundance of tears and sobbing we get out of actors who overdo it in other movies. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it. He doesn’t miss a note.
Everything else in the movie is primed to near-perfection. The comedy is fresh and wholehearted without being on-the-nose or over-the-top. The drama is grounded and believable, and hits on issues that most teenagers experience on the verge of growing up and moving on to college. The only minor complaint I would have with the movie is that some of the plot elements seem so out there for teenagers under 18, but the movie addresses that near the end of the third act.
All in all, Paper Towns does what its supposed to and when its supposed to do it. It made me laugh abundantly and uncontrollably. It made me choke up and quiver. It made me intrigued and interested. And it made me eagerly happy and excited, not unlike the excitement these characters experience with each other throughout the film. I may have been too much of a romanticist while writing this review, but I’d like to think Green was one while he was writing the book. The movie delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Just because not everything happened, doesn’t mean it’s any less real.