Paper Towns Review
Jake Schreier’s Paper Towns is looking to say something deep about friendship, carpe diem, and transitioning into adulthood. Yet, it fails to handle any of these themes convincingly. Based on the novel by best-selling author John Green (who also penned The Fault in Our Stars), the story centres on Quentin (Nat Wolff), a fearful high school senior who is head over heels in love with his next-door neighbour, Margo (Cara Delevingne).
Margo is considered to be a young woman of mystery and adventure. She climbs houses, runs away to join the circus, and talks herself into the backstage of trendy gigs. She is also the most popular girl in school. All this, added to her contrived enigmatic air, makes her wholly irritating. Neither the script, feeding her grandiloquent lectures about living life to the full, nor Delevingne’s exaggerated performance help the case. One night she appears in Quentin’s bedroom window, demanding that he drive her around as she carries out revenge pranks on her classmates.
While Wolff’s delivery as Quentin is endearing, the character feels manufactured: he shows both extraordinary emotional maturity and an implausible desire for an ordered, white picket fence future. Going to college, having a good job, and getting married by thirty – he repeats several times – are his dreams. An eighteen-year-old so neatly arranged to aspire to conventionality feels off.
That night, Margo describes Orlando (where the film is set) as a paper town, propped up only by its flakiness and superficiality. She disappears the next day, leaving clues for Quentin to follow. He promptly brings in his friends Angela (Jaz Sinclair), Ben (Austin Abrams), Lacey (Halston Sage), and Radar (Justice Smith) to help in the search. The crew’s dynamics make for the film’s best scenes, most of which are genuinely funny. However, they too sound a little too grown-up to be credible: they share their emotional vulnerabilities without a trace of mockery, in a way that must be near unheard of among teenage boys.
The film ends on an underwhelming note. It attempts to make a case for living more daringly while warning against the danger of projecting ideals on other people, but the message comes across as vague and baseless. The dynamic among the group of friends – the film’s best asset – is not sufficiently explored, and planted moments of high school nostalgia seem like a shameless and ineffective tug at our heartstrings. The conclusion is at least unusual, but this doesn’t save it from being wholly dissatisfactory.
Paper Towns worsens rather than improves the novel’s story. Wolff delivers a strong performance alongside Abrams and Smith, but their scenes, although entertaining, are not enough to save something that feels a lot like a paper film.