Paper towns are fictitious places intentionally listed on maps to catch acts of plagiarism and copyright infringement. While tourist hub Orlando, Florida, is far from one of these made-up locations, high-school senior Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) feels as if it is. She looks around and in place of genuine truth and passion she sees people going through the motions of artificial lives, terminal pretenders determined to maintain the status quo. Just as her friends and family and longtime next-door neighbor Quentin "Q" Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) see her a certain way, she sees herself as someone entirely differentthe so-called "myth" of her persona but a paper construct in and of itself. Unusual enough to feel fresh and faithful enough to still comfortably adhere to the cornerstones of coming-of-age cinema, "Paper Towns" is a teen-focused slice-of-life done right. Directed with wizened sincerity by Jake Schreier (2012's "Robot & Frank") and adapted from John Green's 2008 novel by screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (2014's "The Fault in Our Stars
"), the film surprises not so much in its destination but in the act of getting there. Unlike most movies about teenagers, here is one where it's not so easy to guess what will happen next.
Ever since the alluring, free-spirited Margo moved into his neighborhood, straight-laced Quentin has been head over heels for her. They were friends eleven years ago when they were both just little kids, but a lot has changed since adolescence hit and now they run in separate social circles. Then, one night, Margo literally crawls through his bedroom window with a request to borrow his mom's car. Quentin hesitantly agrees to escort her around, and what follows is an unforgettable night of adventure, rule-breaking and score-settling as Margo enacts sweet revenge on her cheating boyfriend and all the pals she believes have been dishonest with her. They share a moment together, she leaves him with parting words he won't forget"How you felt tonight is how you should feel your whole life"and then, just like that, she disappears. Quentin knows Margo loved a good mystery, and he becomes determined to follow the trail of clues she left behind in hopes of finding her. With graduation and prom looming ahead, he will step out of his comfort zone again and againattending a house party, cutting a class, befriending Margo's misunderstood friend Lacey (Halston Sage), and setting out on a whirlwind road trip up the east coast. In doing so, he gradually comes into his own by no longer playing things by the book.
"Paper Towns" isn't just about a teenage boy trying to find the girl with whom he is infatuated, and, although it enthralls as a mystery, the whereabouts of Margo are sort of beside the point. Instead, Quentin's journey is revelatory for what he discovers in the meantime, best buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) helping him to realize that the experiences they are having in the present are ones they may never have again as they go their separate ways after high school. More than that, the fearless, ethereal aura surrounding Margoa mystique he has built up for himself over the last decadeproves to be yet another featherweight façade. Just as Lacey confides in him that she is tired of people only noticing what she looks like and not paying attention to the person she is on the inside, others (himself included) have created an inflated, skewed perspective of who Margo is.
If "Paper Towns" doesn't entirely escape its literary genesisQuentin's voiceover as he talks about the "miracle" of Margo walking into his life intermittently flirts with preciousness, as do little cutesy details like Margo's stance on "unfair capitalizations"the empathy and observation with which director Jake Schreier treats this story and each character makes it something of a major-studio rarity in 2015. Credit 20th Century Fox (and the box-office success of "The Fault in Our Stars
," also based on a John Green novel) for mounting a low-key teen drama, one that is free of fatal diseases and traps no one in a dystopian landscape, and then takes the time to listen to the respective dreams, desires and insecurities of the people on the screen. The further the viewer delves into their lives, the deeper and more poignant the picture gets.
In one of his first solo lead roles, Nat Wolff (2013's "Admission
") is tremendously appealing as Quentin, a cross between Tom Cruise in 1983's "Risky Business," John Cusack in 1989's "Say Anything," and Emile Hirsch in 2004's "The Girl Next Door
." The actor wholeheartedly becomes this character, a studious straight arrow who has missed out on many of the rebellious rites of passage of teenagehood and, through his connection to Margo, begins to make up for lost time. His early scenes with Cara Delevingne (2012's "Anna Karenina"), a beguiling natural as the enigmatic Margo, make enough of a lasting imprint that even when she is mostly gone thereafter her memory remains steadfastly near the forefront. As they look out over the twinkling lights of their town from a conference room in the Sun Trust building and their heart-to-heart talk segues into a dance to an instrumental version of Chris de Burgh's "The Lady in Red," a quiet, magical moment takes place. As Quentin's apprehensive, all-talk best friend Ben, Austin Abrams (2013's "The Kings of Summer
") endears almost instantly, turning what might have been just a comic-relief role in a lesser film into one with layers and sensitivity. Halston Sage (2014's "Neighbors
") is effervescent as Lacey, moving beyond how Quentin, Ben and Radar (Justice Smith) see heras a popular, unobtainable beautyand revealing her personable, down-to-earth true self underneath. Newcomers Justice Smith, as Radar, and Jaz Sinclair, as Radar's sweet-natured girlfriend Angela, likably round out the central cast. Getting to spend time with all of these characters is immensely enjoyable.
It is no secret that Margo does eventually reappear, the hows and whys and wheres inherent to her disappearance not providing Quentin with the answers he expects, but giving him the resolution he needs. And, while Margo's decisions may seem frustrating and perhaps too abstract for their own good, they do make a stirringly truthful point that no person can be fully understood by outside parties looking in. Her decisions are entirely hers, just as her mistakes are hers to make. "Paper Towns" is attractively lensed by cinematographer David Lanzenberg (2015's "The Age of Adaline
"), doing a lot with locational limitations (although set in Orlando, it was shot in North Carolina), while the soundtrack is decked out with ideally placed indie-rock tracks that add to the film's sirenic, slightly off-center mood. Quentin's concluding voiceover is perhaps overly verbose by a half, the screenplay seeming to search for an endpoint that might have benefitted from some minor editorial trims. The final closing moments, however, are just right. The kind of identifiable teen movie that speaks to more than one generation and should hold up splendidly with the passage of time, "Paper Towns" is a thoughtfully crafted drama with an ensemble of actors standing on the precipice of what deserve to be bright careers.