Paper Towns

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Friday July 24, 2015

Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff star in 'Paper Towns'
Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff star in 'Paper Towns'  (Source:Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation)

If "Paper Towns" seems like a Young Adult novel that has made its way to the screen, that's because it is. John Green's award-winning novel has, predictably, has come under fire in some places by parents outraged at its depictions of teen sexuality, but it's not sex that drives the story. Rather, this is a mystery story concerning neither crimes nor conspiracies, but far more perplexing matters of the heart such as friendship and the nature of romance and its illusions.

Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have held on to various novelistic devices (for instance, one character's parents hoard specialty Santa Claus collectibles) and there's a running gag about the senior prom. All of that takes a back seat to the central story, in which Quentin (Nat Wolff) sets out, best friends at his side, to unravel a series of clues pointing to the whereabouts of the runaway girl next door, Margo (Cara Delevingne).

Quentin -- or Q, as his friends call him -- has been smitten with Margo since the day she moved in across the street. (They were both seven years old at the time.) Since then, Q's voiceover tells us, he's moved on to other things and he hardly even thinks about Margo... even though she's in his class at school and, as we soon find out, he knows which desk is hers in every period. So much for moving on.

Q tosses off references to Margo's earlier adventures -- running away to join the circus, touring with a band, stuff right out of pop culture. Margo is the sort of wild child who turns up in fizzy movies like "Almost Famous" (Kate Hudson played the part of another tour-with-the-band, preternaturally self-possessed teen in that film). Her absence, and the effect it has on Q, lends this movie what fizz it has.

Not that "Paper Towns" is boring, especially at the start, when Margo recruits Q to help her take revenge on a rogue's gallery of ex-friends over the course of a single wild night. This sequence by itself might have made for a fairly entertaining comedy, but "Paper Towns" has bigger fish to fry: Come the morning, Margo has disappeared. It's not for the first time, and no one is seriously worried -- least of all Margo's exasperated parents -- but Q, his passion reignited and his curiosity piqued when he discovers the first in a series of clues Margo has left for him, determines that he's been handed the task of tracking Margo down. (Behind this thinking, of course, is the assumption that it's Margo herself who'll be his prize if he succeeds.)

The film veers toward "Veronica Mars" territory briefly, before swerving into a whole new genre: That of the road movie. It's here that the film regains its equilibrium, and a sweet tale of teens on the cusp of adulthood takes shape. Along for the ride are Q's buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justin Smith). Margo's best friend -- and Ben's crush -- Lacey (Halston Sage) invites herself along for the ride, and Radar brings his girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair).

The typical things happen -- convenience store follies, a cow in the road, tensions coming to a head in a rural corner of upstate New York, where the group has spent all night driving from Florida -- but there are plenty of inventive, even endearing, moments scattered throughout, and the cast bring a likable, dorky authenticity to their performances.

It all comes down to the "paper towns" of the title, which turn out to be fictitious cities added to maps by cartographers in order to discourage copy cats stealing their intellectual property. (How that works, who knows.) What it means in terms of one's personal roadmap through life is the theme of the story. It's a worthwhile one for teenagers, but adult viewers might feel they are looking at situations and revelations that have long since receded in the rear view mirror.


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Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.