★ ★ ½
For the second year in a row, young-adult novelist John Green has had his work adapted for the big screen. 2014’s The Fault in Our Stars was a critical and commercial success, and now the screenwriting duo behind that movie (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) are back to tackle Paper Towns. Director Jake Schreier helms, but unfortunately, the film amounts to little more than a collage of tired clichés.
Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a bright, straitlaced high-school senior in suburban Orlando. He’s been infatuated with his neighbor, the enigmatic and spontaneous Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), ever since she moved across the street when they were young. Despite their childhood friendship, the two have drifted apart during adolescence: Q has become a band nerd, and Margo a popular and adored socialite. Margo also has a penchant for disappearing for long stretches of time, even joining the circus once as a tween.
The shy Quentin yearns to reignite their friendship and reel in his wild-child neighbor. Fate appears to be on his side, as Margo climbs through his bedroom window one night and recruits him for a mission of revenge on her cheating ex-boyfriend. Their night of debauchery together reminds them of their childhood friendship, memories that Quentin clings to as a fantasy of what his life as a rebellious teen could have been like. After a tender moment, the two retreat to their separate bedrooms, leaving Q giddy with anticipation of his future with Margo.
The next day, Quentin is devastated to find that Margo has once again vanished. Her parents are fed up with her attention-seeking antics, and neglect to file a missing-persons report. With the help of his equally nerdy pals Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams), as well as Margo’s distressed best friend Lacey (Halston Sage), Quentin works to unravel a series of clues Margo left behind that hint at her whereabouts. The misfit gang eventually stumble across a clue that leads them on a road trip up the coast, setting up the film’s closing third.
The enjoyment viewers will get out of Paper Towns relies exclusively on their tolerance for teen coming-of-age flicks. While Quentin’s lovesick journey aims for profound insight, it’s riddled with all of the familiar tropes of the genre. There are the run-of-the-mill scenes in which nerds experience their first high-school party, full of heavy drinking and vomiting. The cliché of the teen road trip is unearthed yet again, complete with wide-eyed gawking out of minivan windows and the loss of V-cards. Tight close-ups of the characters are paired with a carefully curated indie-rock soundtrack, and any sense of narrative cohesion is abandoned for a neatly tied-up conclusion.
However, much like The Fault in Our Stars, Paper Towns is buoyed by the presence of a young female lead on the cusp of superstardom. Delevingne is missing for a good chunk of the film, but her absence is a hindrance to the picture as a whole. There’s a tremendous depth to Margo that goes largely untapped by Schreier and company, who opt to use her as a symbol of Quentin’s infatuation rather than see her as a three-dimensional person in her own right. Although she’s just cutting her teeth in Hollywood, the 22-year-old British actress is uniquely qualified to play a character who’s a projection of high-school beauty, given her hugely successful modeling career that cast her as a symbol of youthful mystique. Her American accent still needs some fine-tuning, but she has a palpable command of the silver screen. Already cast in the hotly anticipated comic-book film Suicide Squad, it won’t be long before Delevingne is a household name in the U.S.
If you squint hard enough at the screen, Wolff’s timid smirks and matted hair bear a striking resemblance to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. But while Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock was a rebel and an avatar for a disenfranchised generation, Wolff’s Quentin is a conformist at heart. He dreams of a successful job, a suburban home, and a family life, and uses his time with Margo to flirt with the idea of living impulsively. It’s a strange mix of conservativism and adolescent desire, and the filmmakers aren’t able to distill this contrast into an interesting message. As a result, Neustadter and Weber keep the stakes low: Quentin knows he has a successful future ahead of him, regardless of how his road trip to sweep Margo off her feet plays out. It’s a thematic fault in Green’s novel: How can audiences be expected to root for Quentin to save Margo if we know he can just shrug off this love affair and look forward to a six-figure salary? There’s no terminal illness like in The Fault in Our Stars to make us care; these teens don’t have anything bigger weighing on them than the realization that their adolescence is fleeting, and the story itself is wrapped up in a formula that’s been done to death. Despite an affable performance from Wolff and a star turn by Delevingne, Paper Towns is ultimately a forgettable entry in the young-adult genre.