“Everyone gets a miracle.”
Papers Towns opens with the above quote, and over the course of the story rarely relents its optimism, vibrancy, or sense of hope. This is an upbeat movie with engaging characters and adventure and discovery. Walk into it a downer and a pessimist and you’ll walk out just as you came. It just doesn’t have the kind of lasting power to change you or alter your perspective on life. But I don’t think it wants to do that. Paper Towns knows its audience, caters to them, and is so fast and deliberate that you never question a single thing. Sometimes you leave a movie and just feel good. Like literally. There’s a hop to your step, a nod to your head, and a newly rejuvenated link to life. Get lost, get found, do what the movie tells you to. You’re bound to find something great.
Ever since he was little, Quentin Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), known simply as Q by his friends, has been bewitched by the girl next door. It’s more of a curse, really. Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delvinge) is the it girl. She pulls off that dreadful name, dates the most popular guy in school, and on one occasion even wears an aviator hat. Quentin and Margo used to be friends, but the pitfalls and perils of high school have launched them into different senior year stratospheres. He gets dropped off at school in the family mini-van. She rides in the back of a convertible. He’s never missed a day of class. She often disappears. It’s not that they dislike each other either. For whatever reason, sometimes people just drift apart. Q still pines for her, but she hardly notices the boy across the street. Then in the dead of night Margo climbs into his bedroom window to ask him to be her accomplice in completing “9 things” before the evening is through. How can you say no to your childhood crush?
It’s the night of Q’s life. Catching up with the girl of his dreams, righting wrongs and wronging some rights. And then she’s gone. No goodbyes or nothing. As she has numerous times growing up, Margo vanishes. She leaves clues though. Breadcrumbs to be found but not necessarily to be understood. From that point on it’s a mystery and a road movie, trying to figure out where this girl went and what the trail behind her means. There to help him decipher the riddles are his best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith). Ben’s the fast-talking wisecrack who’s never been with a girl but makes up stories about his “honeybunnies.” Radar has a girlfriend and takes the upcoming prom seriously because that’s where the first sexual encounter is planned. They are a well-rounded trio, and the chemistry between the three of them is tangible. Parts don’t even feel acted, but rather lived.
I finished the book Paper Towns two days before seeing the movie…and I hated it. The dialogue is awkward. The characters have no defining characteristics that they stick to. 3 entire chapters are devoted to saying “I slept.” It’s the kind of book you can skim and not miss a thing. The detail isn’t just excessive; it’s cumbersome. Thankfully this was adapted by the screenwriting tandem of Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter (both of The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars). These guys are the new kings of the YA novel adaptation. The book has a good story foundation with way too many miles on it. A marathon and then some. Here though, its pace is so fast, so quick and driven. There is some fine directing by Jake Schreier too, yet the credit goes to his writers. As the phrase goes, “if it ain’t on the page, it an’t on the stage.” Some small parts won’t be entirely clear if you haven’t read the book, but Neustadter and Weber could not have done a better job.
Movies about high school have the opportunity to introduce us to new talents. Most have heard of star Nat Wolff by now, who is solid here with a character a little too one-dimensional. Who doesn’t know supermodel turned actress Cara Delevinge either? Margo is only in about a third of the movie, and even then she’s basically there just to spark Quentin and speak solely in affirmations. Delevinge is enticing but her character is flat. What a supporting cast though. Look out for Abrams and Smith as Ben and Radar. Abrams steals the movie and is the heart of its hilarity. The kid is funny. Smith on the other hand is more subdued and in control of his timing. Both are wonderful. Lastly, there is Lacey Pemberton (Halston Sage), Margo’s best friend and the victim of Ben’s endless male gaze. She’s stunning, sophisticated, smart. However, Sage brings depth to her blonde knockout, and you understand the emotions she feels with a simple stare or twinge of a smile. The cast gives the movie such a youthful lifesource.
Paper Towns comes across as a product, or an inspiration, of the 80’s to the early 90’s. It certainly has more platitudes and lecturing than in those respective time periods, and somehow it feels familiar. That familiarity is spun with a freshness though. A zing and a pop and a snap. It’s a lot funnier than you might expect. It’s also more observant. These kids aren’t castaways living on their own lonely islands of high school lunch tables. They interact and talk and experience all of the same lasts together. Last time being late to class. Last dance. Last time at a party with the same people. Films in this genre often work because they are so deeply relatable. However, for some people, slow to the affair and reticent to get out and live, it can be a series of firsts. We all don’t go through the moments at the same time, but whether we like it or not, many of those moments are shared, universal even. This movie shows an earned privilege in saying that we all get a miracle. That miracle, that mystery, ends up being life. Paper Towns is the way the journey should be: interesting and fun.
“You may not be the myth we made you out to be. But you’re still pretty somethin’.”
Rating: 4 out of 5