A film review by Craig J. Koban August 6, 2015


2015, PG-13, 109 mins.


Nat Wolff as Quentin Jacobsen  /  Cara Delevingne as Margo Roth Spiegelman  /  Austin Abrams as Ben Starling  /  Justice Smith as Radar  /  Halston Sage as Lacey Pemberton  /  Jaz Sinclair as Angela  /  Caitlin Carver as Becca Arrington  /  Griffin Freeman as Jase  /  Cara Buono as Connie Jacobsen

Directed by Jake Schreier  /  Written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber  /  Based on the book by John Green

I had great difficulty deconstructing PAPER TOWNS.  

It’s a coming of age high school drama from the director of the criminally underrated ROBOT & FRANK and the writers of THE SPECTACULAR NOW and THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, two wonderfully sensitive portraits of young love.  PAPER TOWNS also has an exceptionally well-rounded cast that displays ample and credible chemistry throughout.  The film contains individual moments of poignant honesty and, for the most part, treats its adolescent characters with dignity and respect as sensitive human beings, something that far too many other similar genre films fail to do.  Yet, the overall narrative in PAPER TOWNS feels mechanical and fabricated to the point where I simply didn’t buy what was happening, leaving a film that was started off as something potentially profound and then concluded with a resounding anticlimactic thud.  

This is all too bad, because PAPER TOWNS could have been a solid and memorable teen film that dealt with the foibles of forming and maintaining relationships as one grows older, but regrettably becomes an exercise in genre artifice.  The film is the second to be adapted – after THE FAULT IN OUT STARS – from the novels of John Green, which have be lauded in critical circles for their grounded and authentic portrayals of young people.  I certainly can see how director Jake Schreier has attempted to gather together his uniformly stellar cast to create rich and textured personalities that don’t feel slavish to teen genre film clichés and formulas.  The teenagers that populate PAPER TOWNS feel real and relatable (that, and they’re not egregiously played by 30-year-olds, something that Hollywood does in far too much abundance).  Alas, the nagging issue with PAPER TOWNS is that the story they occupy had me asking far too many logical questions, which had the negative side effect of making me feel at a distance with the underlining material.  



Deep down, PAPER TOWNS is yet another teen drama about a meek and mild mannered nobody that loves a popular girl in school and tries to find ways of having his love reciprocated back…albeit, this film has some twists in this respect.  The film opens with a flashback as we meet Quentin, a young boy that develops a friendship with a new girl that’s moved in across the street named Margo.  Like all great childhood friendships, though, Margo and Quentin drifted apart as they grew up and entered high school.  Flashforward to the present and Quentin (Nat Wolff) still pines after Margo (model turned actress Cara Delevingne), but she remains aloof and barely notices him anymore.  Quentin takes solace in the form of the bond he now shares with his BFFs Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justin Smith), both of whom have tried to convince their pal for years to simply move on. 

Fate steps in one night for Quentin when, out of the blue, Margo appears in his bedroom  – via his open window – and asks Quentin if he would be her accomplice on a series of social revenge missions against friends that have betrayed her.  Of course, Nat agrees, and during the evening the two bond in ways that they haven’t since their childhoods.  Unfortunately for poor Nat, in the subsequent days he’s unable to contact Margo; she’s not at school, not at home, and is not returning his calls and texts.  She has, for all intents and purposes, vanished without a trace.  However, the sneaky and enigmatic Margo has left a series of remarkably shrewd clues behind for Nat, which may or may not point towards her current location.  After a series of successes and setbacks, Nat is finally able to harness his inner Sherlock Holmes and deduce Margo’s whereabouts, so he enlists in his buddies to make a 1200 mile road trip to seek out the woman he loves…all right before the senior prom.  He’s cutting it close. 

PAPER TOWNS is a small scale triumph on a pure level of its performances and all of the young actors here seem adept at harnessing all of the endearing and idiosyncratic quirkiness that makes their respective characters feel so tangible.  Nat Wolff is the clear standout here, portraying a character that’s inquisitive, sincere, shy, and not altogether self-assured.  There’s a likeable awkwardness to Quentin here, and many critics have bemoaned Wolff for being a bit too internalized and bland in the role.  If anything, Quentin is a guarded character that’s filled with doubt and uneasiness about his place in the world and how Margo may fit into it, so a reserved performance is a proper fit in this respect.  Wolff is flanked by strong supportive work by Austin Abrams and Justin Smith, and the three of them together create a thoroughly textured and genuine clique that really helps ground the film in a sense of realism.  So many high school characters feel like the product of cookie-cutter screenplay factories, but Quentin, Radar and Ben talk and act like real teens would. 

The real problem with PAPER TOWNS is with the character of Margo herself.  She’s introduced early on as a figure of Nat’s lifelong infatuation, but then is removed from the story far too early on and well before we really gain an understanding of what makes this girl tick.  Cara Delevingne does what she can with a frankly underwritten character and imbues in her an intoxicating weirdness, but she only makes a superficial impression of viewers and is never really developed as a character that makes a lasting impression at all.  This, of course, led to me asking what Nat really found so alluring in this person in the first place that would convince him to engage in a ridiculously long journey to find her.  PAPER TOWNS is trying to be, I guess, about how young people often have their judgment clouded by the outward perception of people, but there’s also a darker undercurrent to the film in the sense that Nat is, when it boils right down to it, is perpetrating irresponsible, stalkerish and obsessive behavior.  I simply struggled with trying to deduce why Nat found this girl worthy of his fanatical drives. 

The logical loopholes in the film can’t be overlooked either.  What about Margo’s parents?  There’s one brief scene when they appear to question her disappearance, but they’re never heard from again.  And is it truly believable that Margo would leave a series of labyrinthine clues behind for Nat to discover, some of which involve remarkable deductive reasoning and ridiculously far-fetched connections?  That, and is it at all believable that Nat and his friends would be able to essentially steal his family’s SUV, go on a risky trek across the country from Orlando to New York, and then later call these same parents to let them know what they’re up to?  How do these parents show such little concern about the wellbeing of their children?  Too much of what happens in PAPER TOWNS feels like it exists in some laughably twisted Bizarro version of reality.  For a film that’s trying to be grounded and genuine, PAPER TOWN feels like borderline science fiction at times. 

Even the ending of this film strains credulity.  There’s nothing wrong with ambiguous movie endings.  I don’t need everything spelt out to me with exactitude, but the manner that PAPER TOWNS essentially solves nothing between its main characters is deeply unsatisfying and frustrating.  When all is said and done, the final moments all but undo the motivations behind Margo in the first place, leaving PAPER TOWNS feeling like pre-programmed nonsense.  I didn’t despise this film, though; Nat Wolff certainly has a career ahead of him and I liked the earnestness of the actors assembled around him.  They all in tandem create teen personas that are worthy of our interest.  It’s just the story they’re in that’s kind of neatly packaged sentimental hogwash, leaving PAPER TOWNS a bit too paper thin for its own good.    

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