Film review: Teenager turns detective in pulp love mystery Paper Towns
Director: Jake Schreier
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne
“Paper towns” is the name given to fake conurbations created by mapmakers to identify plagiarism of their work. But the term is better used by Margo, the heroine of the film that bears that name, to zippily describe the half-life, spiritual emptiness she feels growing up – a “paper girl” amid “paper houses” and “paper people” – in Orlando.
This is one of many glib platitudes the cooler-than-thou 18-year-old serves up in this slightly – but only slightly, mind – left-field take on the teen coming-of-age drama.
Played with elusive haughtiness by catwalk model Cara Delevingne, Margo is the kind of It girl that real-life girls want to be, and boys want to have – the kind of girl who listens to vinyl and reads Walt Whitman, but is still gearing up to be prom queen.
She “loves mysteries so much she became one”, says our protagonist Quentin, or Q (Nat Wolff) – her childhood friend and neighbour, who is naturally head over heels in love with her.
If this all sounds navel-gazingly teen-tastic, then know that it is the second book in as many years to be adapted from a young-adult bestseller by John Green, following the runaway success of The Fault in Our Stars.
One night, Margo climbs through Q’s window – because that is generally how she enters buildings – and demands he spend the evening chauffeuring her around town while she settles a few scores.
“Basically, this is going to be the best night of your life,” she tells him. She’s not wrong – the pair rip eyebrows off sleeping enemies, deposit rotting fish in cupboards and photograph her cheating ex naked, marking their trail of infantile destruction with a blue, graffitied “M” and recklessly capitalised Post-it notes (because it’s “not fair” – or “nOt fAIr”?).
The night ends with the pair, having snuck into the top floor of an office block, slow-dancing to, in her words, the piped “sounds of corporate America”.
“You have to get lost, before you can find yourself,” she tells him, setting his heart aflutter at such profundity.
The next morning, Margo is gone. What is a poor, lovesick soul to do? It’s here that director Jake Schreier’s movie clicks into gear, as Q and misfit buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) hunt for clues. Along the way, they skip class and attend their first party – Margo’s message: think outside the box, Q.
In the final third of the film, things start to lag amid one too many tidy conveniences. It all culminates with a 2,000-kilometre road trip, alongside two love interests, which serves to pack in all the previously missing teen clichés – a first kiss, a near-death experience and stacks of “you guys” bonding.
This is a shame, as much of the script works hard to sidestep the obvious, with the tone well pitched between mystery, drama and comedy.
The lead performances are commendable, there’s a genial chemistry between the three male friends and most of the jokes work. Yet for all these pluses, it’s hard to see Paper Towns appealing to many people beyond the target teen demographic.
A last hat tip must go the soundtrack – an excellent and evocative collection of contemporary wanderlust indie music, featuring Santigold, Vampire Weekend, The War on Drugs and many more.
While the laboured life lessons at the film’s close – appreciate what you’ve got, value friendship, don’t expect a miracle – are unlikely to change many lives, if nothing else, millions more teenagers might now be aware of who Woody Guthrie is and that is no bad thing.
Updated: July 29, 2015 04:00 AM