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August 29, 2015
When it comes to adaptations of contemporary Young Adult literature, John Green’s Paper Towns may as well be considered close to perfection and lots of the credit belongs once again to Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the fantastic duo of screenwriters who already brought to the silver screen Green’s global best seller The Fault In Our Stars (TFIOS), turning it into a box office hit last summer. Although this time around the source material isn’t as big a pre-existing pop culture phenomenon as TFIOS, Paper Towns still comes with a New York Time Best Seller pedigree and its cinematic version is poised to attract solid box office as the ideal counterprogramming to the typical summer fare.
Despite having enjoyed TFIOS and embraced its tearjerker quality without cynicism, thanks to Green’s novel not being at all exploitative of the kids-with-cancer love story but rather hopeful and awe-inspiring, I found Paper Towns a much more satisfying and relatable read. The story isn’t in fact another sappy teen romance but a poignant nostalgic look at one of the pivotal turning points in one’s youth, the end of high school, and a genuine portrait of friendship as the one thing that matters the most in those formative years. It starts off as a romance, becomes a noir-ish mystery, and then morphs into a road trip adventure, all of this whilst being laced with smart and funny teen comedy throughout.
A “paper town” is a fictitious town made up by cartographers in order to protect the copyright of their maps and it’s used by one of the characters as a metaphor for how she feels about Jefferson Park, a fictional subdivision located in suburban Orlando, Florida, where the story takes place. The character in question is Margo Roth Spiegelman, played in the film by British model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne, who’s the object of Quentin’s (our protagonist) affection. Nat Wolff (Palo Alto, TFIOS) plays Quentin ‘Q’ Jacobsen, the story’s narrator who’s been in love with Margo since she moved in next door, when they were little kids.
Long gone are the times when they used to wander the neighborhood on their bikes which one day led them to share the disturbing experience of finding a man who’d shot himself, lying by a tree. On that occasion, the main difference between the playing-it-safe Q and the adventurously wild Margo had become instantly clear. Yet, despite drifting apart in high school, Q still desperately longs after Margo who’s obviously a popular girl dating a jock, whilst he’s a nerd always hanging with his equally nerdy best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith).
Though this may sound at first like a generic teen story set up, I can immediately reassure you that both John Green’s novel and its cinematic adaptation take those tropes and spin them around into something unique.
One night Q is surprised to be awakened by Margo sneaking into his room through the window like old times and dragging him on a special mission for which she needs his driving services.
She has discovered that her jock boyfriend has been cheating on her with one of her friends and that her best friend knew about it but didn’t tell her. The mission is obviously to bring everyone reckoning but in a hilariously humiliating fashion.
Q reluctantly gives in, claiming he’s going to draw the line when it comes to illegal stuff that might stain his record, now that he’s applying to college. But that’s when Margo surprises him, as she claims to be tired of all this pre-determined path society imposes on them, and that more than anything, she’s tired of appearing like the kind of girl she actually isn’t. As she and Q look over the city from the top of the SunTrust building at the end of their thrills-filled night, Margo calls their city a paper town with paper houses and paper people, expressing her desire to get away.
Q feels like they’ve shared a moment and his feelings for Margo are only reinforced by the crazy experience. Yet his world crumbles when the girl doesn’t show up at school the following day and appears to be gone. It’s not the first time she’s done that though and Q knows she always leaves clues behind. When he finds the first one, he’s convinced this time she left the clues for him to go find her. And so Q’s quest to gather the other clues and figure out the girl’s hiding place becomes his obsession, one that he inevitably drags his best buddies into. In the course of this crazy ride, the first spontaneous thing he’s ever done out of his own will, he’s bound to learn unexpected and important things about himself and life.
Just like the script faithfully captures the spirit of the source material, up and coming director Jake Schreirer (2012’s Robot & Frank) does a great job at executing the story’s wonderful mix of awkward teen comedy, mystery drama and coming-of-age road trip movie, leading the pitch-perfect cast with confidence and great comedic and emotional timing. He keeps the tone raw and genuine, directing his brilliant actors with a naturalistic feel rather than the artificial one of your average mainstream teen flick.
After stealing the show with his supporting role in TFIOS, Nat Wolf deservedly takes the lead here, aptly embodying the endearing nerdiness and romanticism of the story’s hero with effortless charm. And so do Cara Delevingne (who has ‘star’ written all over her future) and the rest of the young ensemble.
These kids’ chemistry is irresistible and their performances are never over the top, in a film that surprisingly doesn’t fall in the typical cheese-traps of Hollywood’s teen romance and that’s a testament to the quality of Green’s novel.
Wrapped in an atmosphere reminiscent of a John Hughes’ 80’s teen comedy, Paper Towns is witty-fun, heartfelt and beautifully sound-tracked, destined to win over the novel’s fans as much as newcomers and leave a mark on a cinematic summer otherwise dominated by the average mega blockbuster.
Paper Towns is playing in UK cinemas now
Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor