If you've seen the trailers for Paper Towns, you'd be forgiven if you thought it looked like a load of Manic Pixie Dream Girl garbage, in which the hot, whimsical girl teaches a shy nice guy to come out of his shell by taking him on a grand adventure. For God's sake, the last line of dialogue in the first trailer is "Everyone gets a miracle. My miracle was Margo Roth Spiegelman." The marketing is really leaning into the whole MPDG thing.
Thankfully, the movie itself takes a surprising turn: it does contain some of those elements, but it subverts that trope instead of celebrating it, and along the way it turns into one of the most truthful expressions of teenage friendship I've seen in a long time.
Director: Jake Schreier
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne
Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a high school senior in love with his mysterious neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne). The school year is wrapping up, and though they haven't spoken in years, Margo surprises Quentin one night by inviting him on a night-long plot to get revenge on her cheating boyfriend. The whirlwind encounter inserts a blast of energy into Quentin's otherwise boring life and gives him the impression he has a chance at romance with the object of his affection, but the next day, she disappears, leaving little clues as to where she might be. Quentin and his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) try to decode the clues so Q can track her down, leading them all on a quest that takes up a majority of the film's run time. To say any more would be to spoil how it all goes down, but suffice to say everything involving Q and his friends is far more effective than his early interactions with Margo.
Delevingne is fine in the role, she just plays a character I didn't really like very much. In the beginning of the movie, Margo checks every one of those MPDG boxes. It's only at the end we discover — spoiler alert — that she's more than just an archetype, she's an actual character who has an inner life of her own. She's not just there as a plot device to get Quentin to embrace his adventurous side, she's a girl who felt trapped and had to get out of town in an effort to find out who she is. It sounds cheesy, but it works in context, and it shows Q that the real love story he's been chasing is between him and his friends.
The film's biggest strength is its dialogue, written by The Spectacular Now writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber; I'm not sure how much of this was taken directly from The Fault in Our Stars author John Green's novel, but regardless, there's a truth to the way these kids speak to each other that feels 100% genuine. It's not what some corporate focus group thinks kids sound like, it's what kids actually sound like. It reminded me of Superbad in more ways than one (including one of the guys' running jokes about wanting to bang Quentin's mom), both in the comedic banter between friends and also in some truly heartfelt moments as they realize their time is limited before they go their separate ways to different colleges. Abrams and Smith are great as Ben and Radar, providing tons of comedic support and many of the movie's best moments. Wolff is a solid, likable presence as Quentin, possessing a sheepish good guy quality that makes you want to root for him.
The word I keep coming back to in my head when I think about this film is "honest," and I think that says a lot about the movie's characterization of a specific time in teenage life. Paper Towns doesn't exactly break new ground in the genre, but it's still a heartfelt, enjoyable ride.