"this is a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age tale, one that is refreshingly unafraid to prioritise distinct and well-imagined characters over plot"
In 1986, Ferris Bueller informed an entire generation of movie-goers that, “life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Almost 20 years later, those words remain as immortal as ever, resonating vibrantly throughout the latest John Green adaptation, Paper Towns.
After the best night of his life, Quentin ‘Q’ Jacobsen and his friends embark upon an epic road-trip to find Margo Roth Spiegelman, the enigmatic and mythical girl who had made it all happen.
Following the commercial and critical success of The Fault in Our Stars, writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber return for a second bite of the cherry. The cherry that is bringing to life the works of YouTube celebrity and best-selling novelist, John Green. Whilst Paper Towns may, for many, lack the subject weight and emotional gut-punches of their 2014 predecessor, the results are just as satisfyingly sweet.
From childhood flashbacks that open the film, to the newfound and deeper wisdom that permeates the voiceover that closes it, there is much that can be defined as ‘traditional’ and overly familiar. And yet somehow there is also an unmistakable air of something modern and fresh about Paper Towns that confidently engages both heart and mind.
Director Jake Schreier opts for a blessedly simplistic and unflashy style, commendably moving the story along at a consistent pace, maintaining a pleasing level of intrigue and ambiguity; allowing the characters and writing to take centre stage - because this truly is where Paper Towns shines brightest. How faithful the writing is to the hugely-popular source material is for more knowledgeable minds to discuss and debate, but whatever the case, it positively sizzles on-screen. The dialogue is sharp and witty - with an almost perfect balance of humour, insight, and emotional complexity – and the pop culture references come frequently, landing more often than not. One in particular, featuring a surprising cameo, will no doubt strike a specific chord and prompt smiles and squeals in equal measure.
Nat Wolff and Cara Delevingne (most definitely not Carla, despite the popular opinion of press junket interviewers), do well with their respective roles. Though he struggles with some of the weightier lines and moments, Wolff offers with Quentin a charming, likeable, and contagiously hopeful lead for whom to root for, though not in the way one might expect. He fares much better in the comedy stakes, most notably in the scenes of taunting yet good-natured banter with his two best friends. Meanwhile, as the girl with a fondness for the titular variety of “towns” that sets everything in motion, Delevingne is sufficiently mysterious and soulful. Competently demonstrating the allure of Margo, as well as the conflicting aspects of a larger than life myth and a simple girl on her own journey of discovery, she doesn’t always the heights and depths that she aims for.
Along for the ride are Quentin’s best friends, Radar (Justice Smith) and the aptly initialled Ben Starling (Austin Abrams), as well as Margo’s one-time best friend, Lacey (Halston Sage). It is with this trio of supporting characters that Paper Towns truly soars and the core message most resonates. Equal parts hilarious and heartfelt, be they discussing and experiencing their first tuba-free party or navigating ever-shifting relationship dynamics, it’s not hard to imagine that, in another movie, these characters could easily have been the central focus. All three of the actors carry the weight on their shoulders with expert grace well beyond their years. So much depth and pathos do they add, that the trend of supporting characters out-shining the leads continues unimpeded in modern film. If John Green was to develop a spin-off novel following any of these characters, there would assuredly be no complaints.
All in all, this is a thoroughly enjoyable coming-of-age tale. One that refreshingly is unafraid to prioritise distinct and well-imagined characters over plot, allowing the latter to believably emerge from the equally believable and relatable actions and decisions of the former. Offering a sincere and universal message - it’s not the destination, but the journey and the friends you share that journey with that truly matters - Paper Towns firmly adds to the pantheon of which the aforementioned Ferris Bueller resides, as well as no doubt solidifying John Green’s status as this generation’s John Hughes.