John Green is in a position similar to Gillian Flynn where an effective movie based on an incredible bestseller has fueled Hollywood production of other books in their oeuvre. With Flynn, the Gone Girl author has an adaptation of Dark Places, starring Charlize Theron, coming out later this year. For Green, the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars has now been joined by Paper Towns.
Quentin (Nat Wolff, who played Isaac in Stars) has been semi-obsessed with Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) ever since her family moved in across the street from him when they were both elementary school age. They’d bonded then, but as Margo developed into a wild free spirit the relationship between them cooled until she doesn’t acknowledge him at all when they pass in the high school halls. Instead Quentin has a deep friendship with Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) that has lasted through most of their school years. Radar has a girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair), while Ben is desperate for a prom date.
Then Margo appears at Quentin’s window one night, just as she use to when they were kids, and invites him on an odyssey of epic revenge after her boyfriend cheats on her. Nate throws caution to the wind and assists Margo, and the adventure makes him feel more alive than he has for years. But after that night Margo disappears. Quentin, like many in the school, wonders what’s become of Margo. One of her friends, Lacey (Halston Sage), is devastated that Margo disappeared while thinking she’d betrayed her. Then Quentin notices that Margo, who’s always loved mysteries, has left a clue to where she’s gone.
The movie has a much different feel to it than Stars, though it was adapted for the screen by the same team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber who did the first movie. Green was also available on the set during the production, as he was for Stars. The story covers a much larger time frame and doesn’t have the life-and-death imperative. Instead it’s more of the classic coming-of-age story, though with Green’s sharply drawn characters and surprising twists it breathes refreshing life into the genre.
Sophomore director Jake Schreier takes a straightforward approach that at times drags a little, though he works well with his cast and he has an interesting visual style. Cinematographer David Lanzenberg follows his fine work earlier this year on Age of Adeline with richly lit scenes that give the feeling of shadows on regular film while working with the clarity of digital photography.
Nat Wolff is excellent as Quentin, the lynchpin role that holds the movie together. It’s not as showy as Isaac’s struggles with losing his eyes to cancer in Stars, which makes the embodiment harder since it must be more nuanced. With Margo, you needed an actress who makes such an impression that even though she’s off screen for much of the picture, she’s still a major character at all times. Cara Delevingne provides that presence and more. It appears she will follow the path of Charlize Theron and others, models who step off the runway and step into an even bigger career as actresses.
The title Paper Towns refers to a way cartographers prevent plagiarism of their work. Green expands it in the story to a metaphor of how much around us that seems permanent is actually as flimsy as paper, and that our challenge as we approach adulthood is to find what is strong and lasting. In the satisfying end Quentin finds it, though not in the way he (or the audience) expects. It’s a worthwhile reminder even when you came of age decades ago.