Despite heavy reservations about the towering importance movies usually assign to adolescence, I still can be suckered into a good teen drama.
Sorry to say, but Paper Towns — the latest movie to dip its toe into teen waters — doesn’t quite make the cut.
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Based on a novel by John Green, Paper Towns is constructed to teach 18-year-old Quentin (Nat Wolff) a life lesson: Reality doesn’t often confirm the fantasies that young men have about young women.
Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but Paper Towns’s semi-appealing characters and thematic ambitions aren’t matched by a credibly developed story.
Paper Towns is based on a novel by John Green, who also wrote The Fault In Our Stars, a “YA” (as in young adult) story that last year became a popular movie by bringing mortality into the mix.
This year’s adaptation of a Green novel revolves around Quentin, a character whose voice-over narration can be heard throughout the movie.
As a kid, Quentin fell for Margo, a girl who moved across the street from him and immediately caught his eye.
By the time Quentin reaches high school, Margo (Cara Delevingne) has become a free-spirited but exceptionally popular girl. The two have drifted apart.
The film also supplies Quentin with a couple of obligatory buddies (Austin Abrams and Justice Smith). One’s a nerdy white kid; the other’s a brainy black kid whose parents own what might be the largest collection of black Santas in the western world, a bit of pointless quirkiness.
To his credit, director Jake Schreier pays a bit of earnest attention to each of Quentin’s pals, allowing them to emerge as real characters.
The story is set in motion on a night when the adventurous Margo climbs through Quentin’s bedroom window, and enlists him in a revenge plot against a boyfriend who cheated on her.
Yes, it’s once again theme time: Can Quentin learn to take risks? Will he live fully or dutifully work his way toward college and med school, the plan he says he’s made for himself?
As a result of joining Margo on her revenge spree, Quentin believes that he has rekindled the spark that once existed between them, but Margo quickly disappears from school and from Orlando, the town where all this is taking place.
Quentin’s search for Margo propels the rest of the story; he’s motivated by love and guided by clues Margo has left for him concerning her whereabouts.
A road trip Quentin takes to find Margo — with his pals in tow — isn’t engaging enough to overcome a plot that never credibly explains why the elusive Margo leaves all those murky, complicated clues in the first place.
The clues and the search they launch feel like contrived bits of business that undermine what had been a reasonably believable effort.
Wolff gives the film an engaging center, and Delevingne is good enough as the movie’s wild child, but Paper Towns remains a low-impact entry into the ever-growing, coming-of-age genre — intermittently amusing, but not much more.
If you don’t already know (and I didn’t), paper towns are fictional spots that cartographers put on maps to ensure that copyrights aren’t violated. That might be the movie’s biggest revelation.