Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
John Green’s cinematic adaptations are starting to carve out a wonderful niche in mainstream cinema. After his challenging romance The Fault in Our Stars splashed gracefully onto the big screen last summer, his works began gaining steam in the business, with Paper Towns here and Looking for Alaska (directed by the talented Sarah Polley) eyeing a release in 2016. While many could easily see this as a cash-grab by Fox 2000 Pictures in hopes of propelling the momentum of Green’s 2014 summer hit, they would be missing one key point: Green’s books are nuanced works made for the big screen. His latest, Paper Towns, may not stray too far from conventions when it comes to its “finding yourself in your last year of high school” premise, but the characters here are beyond engaging, fragile, and real. They are simply people and treat others around them like they are people. It’s rare to see a piece of mainstream film show young men that they should respect women, avoid putting them on a beauty pedestal, and engage with their minds. Paper Towns quietly evolves into a beautifully accomplished drama.
The film focuses on Quentin (Nat Wolff), better known as Q, who is in his last year of high school. He aims to go to Duke in the fall and is acutely focused on school. He has two best friends: Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), both of whom have their own particular quirks. Ben tells fables about women that he’s supposedly slept with while on vacations or in far-off lands, which everyone knows to be false, and his insecurity defines his high school life after one unfortunate incident made everyone mistakingly think he was a, how do you say, self-indulgent young man. Radar has a girlfriend, the only one of the bunch to do so, but his girlfriend has never seen the inside of his house. That’s because his parents own the largest collection of…well, you’ll have to see for yourself. Regardless, these characters never seem to be comfortable in their own bodies, at that awkward point in high school when everything feels weird and you want to move on. Sure enough, Q finds a source of happiness when his long-time neighbor and once-upon-a-time friend, Margo (Cara Delevingne), comes to his window late one night to exact revenge on her ex-boyfriend and friend. Then the next day, she disappears and cannot be found. Q and his friends, along with Margo’s best friend, Lacey (Halston Sage), trek across the East Coast to find her.
The film’s first half is far weaker than its second, most notably because it jumps into the action quickly without us having an idea of who the characters really are. Much of the opening moments are driven by Q’s narration, where he tells us all about these characters but we never really get to see past their caricatures. Seeing is believing, and sure enough the second half of the film kicks off with a game-changing party and never looks back. One of the most nuanced characters in the film is Lacey, a smart, pretty girl who wants to be seen as something more than just her looks; she’s going to Dartmouth, after all. She becomes a full-fledged person in the second half, particularly as self-proclaimed womanizer Ben starts to see her as more than eye-candy. We also get rare glimpses at uncomfortable jokes, particularly one involving a Confederate flag that feels relevant considering the dumbfounding support that some extreme Southerners have attempted to use in the past few months. But the message of the film is simple, straightforward, and beautiful: that young men often see young women as beautiful and jump to the conclusion that they love them, without knowing anything about them. These girls deserve respect and to be known, and director Jake Schreier with writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber let that be established. Paper Towns turns into a terrific film in its later moments because of its ideas, and that’s refreshing.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)