When a movie character complains about the flimsiness and predictability of the world, it helps if the film they're in doesn't share the same traits. The character in question is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), while the feature is Paper Towns. She's the resident high school cool girl that the boy across the road, Quentin — or Q (Nat Wolff) — has spent years pining over. She's also the central mystery in the latest page-to-screen adaptation based on the work of novelist John Green.
Those with a memory for melancholy teen fare might remember the last Green-penned effort to reach cinemas: cancer romance The Fault in Our Stars. Swap illness for aloofness, and a visit to Europe with a drive to upstate New York, and you know the kind of earnest drama you're in for. The same writers bring both films to fruition, and Wolff also features in each — then as the sidekick, now as the star.
Here, his Q fondly remembers his younger days palling around with Margot before they grew up and into different cliques, only to feverishly relive them after she climbs through his bedroom window seeking his help for a revenge-fuelled adventure. The morning after, still buzzed from pranking Margot's cheating ex-boyfriend and the friends who knew about his philandering ways, Q thinks his life will change — only to find that the object of his affections has gone missing instead.
Cue an attempt to track Margot down sparked by a series of clues she has left behind, with the smitten Q certain that they're signs she wants him to do just that. And cue a film that wears not just its heart on its sleeve, but its fantasies about halcyon high school days where important life lessons are learned. You've seen and heard them all before: try new things, follow your dreams, be yourself, cool kids have problems too, don't pin all your hopes of your teenage crush. The list goes on.
Paper Towns barely gives anyone older than 18 a passing glance. Yet as it cycles through the usual house party, road trip and prom moments, it feels more like the calculated, nostalgic product of adults looking backwards than an authentic reflection of youth. That's the territory Green plays in — and while director Jake Schreier cultivated genuine emotion in his previous effort, Robot and Frank, just as writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber did in The Spectacular Now, the author's formula here is clearly at work.
Hence the insubstantial and obvious narrative, the hardly memorable characters, and the other cookie-cutter elements — warm tones, a wistful soundtrack and standard performances included. An amalgam of everything those remembering their adolescence wish to recall, as well as everything those going currently through it wish to experience, Paper Towns just wants to be pleasant and neat. And that's what it achieves — however at-odds with its underlying "don't get boxed in" mantra that may be.