YA author John Green has a nice situation going for himself: He takes the well-worn themes of John Hughes films, updates them, adds some depth and heft and a little bittersweetness and he brings to life the kind of characters that not only speak to 21st century teenagers, but the inner teenagers of those born in the 20th century, too.
John Green gets it. He may not suit everyone, and he is cool only in how uncool he is, but in a marketplace of superhero films, remakes, sequels, S&M films and cartoons, Green can still connect to audiences who are struggling to figure themselves out, find their place in the world, and maybe fall in love.
There’s nothing particularly novel about Paper Towns. It’s a coming-of-age film. It’s a road trip movie. It’s a about chasing a mystery. But there’s a freshness to it, and a pang of sadness mingled in with the teenage movie tropes that brings a dash of poignancy to the formula, and provides us with an ending that feels right instead of happy, though it’s sweet, too, as long as you understand that there’s as much romance in chasing the girl as there is in getting her. Because when you’re 17, it’s not the relationships that last, it’s the memories of them.
Paper Towns is about a kid named Q (for Quentin) played by one of guys who was in the running to be the next Spider-Man (Nat Wollf). You know the character: Good student. In band. He’s got two dorky friends. He never gets in trouble, and therefore, he’s never done anything exciting with his life.
It’s a few weeks before senior prom — and the end of high school — and a girl that he’s been in love with since grade school, Margot (Cara Delevingne, aka Enchantress in the upcoming Suicide Squad) shows up at his window one night, having not spoken to him in nine years, owing to her being super popular, etc. She recruits Q to assist her in getting revenge on a boyfriend that cheated on her — and everyone else implicated — and the two have the kind of adventurous night of mischief that can shake a 17-year-old guy’s world upside down.
Then Margot disappears.
Q — with the help of his dorky friends — follows a few clues in an effort to track her down, which leads to the road trip portion of the film, which subsequently leads to sweet but predictable outcomes for his friends, and a wistful one for Q.
It’s not rocket science. There’s no CGI or special effects, and none of the performances are particularly noteworthy. There are also a few lines of faux profundity that might make you roll your eyes if you can’t bring yourself to remember what you felt like as a teenager. But that’s what Green — and screenwriter Scott Neustadter (who is so remarkable with these kinds of films) — do best: They remember what it’s like to be a teenager, when life was more uncertain, when emotions were more heightened, and when a crush felt life altering.
I liked Paper Towns, but I am a sentimental person with a deep and abiding love of coming-of-age films and a willingness to believe that a teenager would actually drive 1200 miles to try and find a girl. If you don’t fit that description, or if you’re not a lovesick teenager, Paper Towns may not suit you, and that’s OK. But for whom the movie is intended, it hits all the right notes.