After The Fault in Our Stars became a surprise hit last year, it’s little wonder that Fox pushed for another film adaptation of a John Green book so quickly. The film’s promotional campaign has hinged heavily on that connection, in fact; in addition to the shared author, Paper Towns also brings on Stars‘ screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber. To the film’s credit, though, Paper Towns is more than capable of standing on its own.
Nerdy, quiet Quentin (Nat Wolff) has a long-term crush on his mysterious, adventurous neighbor Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), who he’s known since they were kids and she first moved to Orlando. Over the years, the two have grown apart, leaving Quentin to admire Margo from afar. That changes one night their senior year when she recruits him on a night of revenge against her cheating boyfriend and the friends who knew about it. The next morning, Margo has disappeared, but she’s left clues that Quentin believes will lead him to her. Along with his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), Quentin searches for Margo while trying to live his life to the fullest, the way Margo would want.
If it seems like the film is offering just another Manic Pixie Dream Girl, that’s understandable. Margo’s presence in the early part of the film does come across as just another MPDG, uttering lines like “You have to get lost before you find yourself,” and Paper Towns embraces that. It fully delves into the romanticism of these lines, just as Quentin does. Fortunately, the filmmakers have created a bit of a sucker punch at the end of the film that’s both sickeningly earnest and welcome in its maturity.
Interestingly enough, Delevingne is by far the weakest link of the cast. What sells Margo’s greatness is largely Wolff, who delivers a terrific performance that not only makes the lovestruck Quentin acceptable, but makes Margo plausible as this force that draws in people. Wolff’s elevation from “best friend” status in The Fault in Our Stars to lead here is welcome, and Wolff proves he earned the promotion. The film fortunately keeps Margo out of the picture after Quentin and Margo’s wild night, and refocuses on the friendship between Quentin, Ben and Radar. All three share a chemistry that feels real, and it would be easy to believe they were all lifelong friends before making this film.
As I mentioned, the film does manage to avoid making Margo into just another MPDG, and it’s with a bit at the end of the film that successfully pulls away the mythology that’s developed around Margo throughout her life. It doesn’t ruin Margo as a character, but it does call for a reevaluation of her based on her own wants and needs, and it’s a welcome surprise.
Paper Towns may not be the weepy romance that The Fault in Our Stars was, but it does find a similar way of balancing whimsy and reality. Especially considering the film’s target audience, it’s also a welcome entry into the young adult film market. Even older audiences will get something out of it.