The second movie adaptation of a John Green novel, after The Fault In Our Stars, Paper Towns stars Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne.
Quentin fell in love with Margo when they were children, they drifted apart, but one night she came to his window and took him along on a night of revenge pranking against her former friends. The next day she disappears and Quentin and his friends set about following a series of clues to find her.
The first act of this film is a bit too indie twiddly, characters do things that no-one would in real life and there aren’t consequences to their actions, Margo talks existentially about the false constructs of society, she’s a mysterious figure, someone who nobody quite knows and Quentin borders creepy in the way he views her. When she arrives at his window, the film becomes energised by the performance of newcomer Cara Delevingne, playing the role with real effectiveness, memorably being both ethereal and down to earth.
This is a mirror to Nat Wolffs Quentin, whose performance is quite dry and doesn’t have much depth in the beginning, he loves her, and that’s his only characteristic. His two best friends, are played fairly innocuously at the start, Ben is sort of like a tamed down Jay from The Inbetweeners, he talks about everything in relation to the hot girl and the parties. Radar, the other best friend, is initially the slightly dorky hipster one who looks and feels very much like a young Richard Ayoade.
The first act has some nice touches, it can be slightly grating occasionally, but a scene in which Margo and Quentin dance in the top floor of a skyscraper looking out over the city, is played nicely and has some good cinematography, but it all feels fairly average.
The film kicks into gear when Margo vanishes and Quentin and his friends begin following a trail of clues she left, supposedly leading to her. Here, the film improves, with the clues leading them to an abandoned souvenir store, and a house party gives them a chance to connect with Lacey, a friend of Margo, worried about her.
Then the film really hits its stride, the group of four discover that Margo may be in upstate New York, so embark on a road trip to go find her. They are joined by Radars girlfriend Angela, and the film finally becomes its best self. The following half an hour is a joy to watch as the film turns into the coming of age story that the rest of the film doesn’t manage.
Paper Towns gets a whole new lease of life, as they race across the country, rushing into gas stations, wanting to get there and back before prom, and then as their car breaks down, camping beside the road. As the film takes off the weight of the metaphor laden Margo storyline, the film can breathe, the five teens have wonderful chemistry, being warm and funny, and make you genuinely care about them.
Their personalities before were defined by one thing, Ben was a sleaze, Lacey didn’t want to be defined by her looks, Radar was dorky and Angela was assumed to be controlling. All of this changes when the characters sit and get to know each other as we do too. Ben becomes nice and he and Lacey get a chance to connect, her worries, about how she appears to Margo, disappear and she begins to enjoy herself.
Radar and Angela are the sweetest thing about the film, the characters get a chance to expand, their relationship is a delight, and the film knows it. A running joke about Radar not wanting to take her home, because of his parents collection of Black Santas, leads to the film’s most lovely moment. As they lie on a blanket away from the broken down car, they laugh about it, there’s no assumption that she is a controlling character, they are both equal in their love and respect for each other.
Quentin may have no relationship to anchor him, but without Margo he is a more enjoyable person to be around and his relationships with his friends seem genuinely warm and funny. This is what I love most about the film, the five friends are engaging and I would’ve loved an entire film play out just as the road trip does.
Once the third act comes in and they arrive in New York it does, however, slip back into the first act Indie twiddly thing, though it takes some unexpected routes, the film ends in the right place and briefly takes you back to the joy of that road trip.
On second watch I realize the films key message, these manic pixie dream girls that you fetishize, are people too, they don’t need anyone to tell stories about them, they just want to be a person.
Looking at it now, after a second time, I liked it even more. The indie twiddly stuff is more enjoyable when I GET the film, Nat Wolfs performance is more interesting and I feel far more connected to it then ever before. I’ve decided to up my rating for this film, because I think it’s far better than I originally gave it credit for.
In the end what works most about the film, is the friendship that plays out earnestly during the middle portion of the film. Cara Delevingne is a fairly magnetic screen presence as Margo, so she makes the other parts of the film highly watchable, just not as enjoyable as the middle part.
The music is a nice bunch of indie songs that work together well, whilst the cinematography is appropriately summer hue tinged. I haven’t read the book, but the script seems nicely done and the direction gets a lot of great performances out of the actors.
Whilst it may not be as good as it could have been, the film I wanted based off the middle section is a completely different story, I felt like the film was a success.
Rating: B+ 8/10