‘Paper Towns’ is far from a great film, but it does have one thing going for it. The story initially appears to be a dreadfully overused coming-of-age cliché, but then transforms into a slightly less irritating coming-of-age story. So, at least some solace can be found in the fact that it’s not quite as dull as you may have guessed from the trailers. That doesn’t mean it isn’t still kind of dull and irritating, just less so than it could have been.
Things kick off with Quentin (Nat Wolff) describing an age-old story told a few too many times. He plays a quiet and repressed teen who’s obsessed with the beautiful girl next door (Cara Delevingne). They met as kids and she wasn’t too impressed, but he was instantly smitten. For years, he obsessed over Margo and she wasn’t even aware he existed. Then one night, she shows up at his bedroom window and takes Quentin out for one of those magical evenings when all of life’s problems are solved by a beautiful girl and goofy adventures. It’s that infamous “manic pixie dream girl” cliché that’s been picked apart quite a bit in recent years since critic Nathan Rabin coined the term. (You know, those fantasy female characters who are bright balls of quirky energy and exist only to make some repressed guy find himself.) The next day, Margo disappears, but seems to leave clues behind for Quentin to find her. So he packs some friends into a car to hit the road, find his dream girl, confess his love, and head back for the prom.
Thankfully, it’s at this point that the movie matures into something far more interesting. The characters who pile into the car are all high school stereotypes like the two leads. Austin Abrams plays the show-off, sex-obsessed dude. Justice Smith plays the requisite quirky minority to dilute the movie’s unrelenting whiteness, and Halston Sage plays Margo’s sidekick friend. When they hit the road to solve the mystery, it seems like the setup for some slapsticky misadventures, but actually turns into a series of long conversations where the characters expand to at least two dimensions. Suddenly, the movie isn’t such a cut-and-dried romantic high school fantasy, but something slightly more complex.
Adapted from a novel by John Green (‘The Fault in Our Stars’), ‘Paper Towns’ tends to zig when you’d expect it to zag once the table is set. It becomes a movie not about romantic ideals, but the value of normalcy. All the characters who initially seem to be boring archetypes that need the dream girl to give their lives meaning prove to be more compelling than the fantasy they’re all chasing.
That’s actually a rather clever and strong message to impart to teens, and makes ‘Paper Towns’ a far more interesting movie than anyone had any right to expect. Unfortunately, that first half is still there and it’s still irritating even if there’s some misdirection involved. And even if the movie is about everyone’s inherent complexity, that doesn’t mean that the characters are as richly or quirkily drawn as the casts of a Robert Altman or Richard Linklater movie. No, this is still poppy teen stuff and it’s miles away from the ugliness of reality. It’s ultimately a cuddly teen drama that tries, not something that transcends its origins by any stretch of the imagination.
‘Robot & Frank’ director Jack Schreier pulls some strong performances out of the young cast, yet doesn’t bring much to the table visually. It’s a pretty dry and dull movie to look at and not particularly cinematic. However, the kids are good, especially the scrawny charm of the Dustin Hoffman-esque Wolff. Delevingne is still a little raw as an actress but has undeniable beauty and charisma that she can coast on for a while as she learns her chops.
‘Paper Towns’ is a fairly painless watch that teens will likely read into as being totally deep until they grow up and see more movies. It’s perfectly fine for what it is. The trouble is that by toying with narrative conventions and nursing out mild character complexity at all, it suggests far more interesting ideas and stories than a teen-driven studio project this generic could never dare to touch. Saying the movie is better than it could have been is not the same as saying that it’s something special. But it’s a start.