There’s something incredibly satisfying about a well-executed high school film that hits all the right John Hughes-inspired sweet spots. “Paper Towns,” adapted from a novel by “The Fault in Our Stars” writer John Green, does just that, with a twist. Concerned with the miracles, myths and mysteries that come with the end of high school, the film self-consciously engages with genre tropes, while also updating and evolving the formula, this time by inserting mystery into its central storyline.
Much of the creative team from smash hit “The Fault in Our Stars” is transplanted to “Paper Towns,” including screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, as well as star Nat Wolff, who plays the cautious and quiet Quentin. Q, as he’s known to his friends, is enamored of his next-door neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne), an adventurous wild child, a bit of a manic pixie thrill ninja, and the coolest girl in school. Long estranged, the childhood pals reunite for a long night of pranking the popular kids — revenge and a goodbye for her, and a first time bending the rules for him.
Energized by their escapade, and their reunion, Quentin is dismayed to find the next day that Margo has mysteriously evaporated into thin air. No one seems much concerned with that fact, inured to Margo’s footloose and fancy-free ways, but Q needs to find her. He seeks out the signature clues she always leaves behind, and finding one, sets off on his quest, bringing his quirky, nerdy buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) along. Also hitching a ride on the adventure are Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair).
“Robot & Frank” director Jake Schreier brings energy and authenticity to the story, imbuing classic scenes with a sense of newness, while maintaining the familiarity, and comfort, of these story moments. The supporting cast offer a healthy dose of silly humor and heart. Wolff is the standout in a soulful performance that captures the boyishness of Q, a quality he cherishes, and mourns, as it slips away during his coming of age. Delevingne is a charming, unusual presence, but not much is demanded of her in this role.
Unfortunately, the Margo character only serves as a motivator for the male lead to learn something about himself — that it’s the journey, not the destination, to appreciate what’s right in front of you before it’s gone. There’s an attempt in the third act to flesh out more of her character, her own motivation, but what we discover is that behind all the smoke and mirrors, there’s not much at all.
Though he’s infatuated with Margo, “Paper Towns” is Quentin’s story, and he even admits that he can’t tell hers. Still, Q’s adventure is a passionate and creative retelling of a time-honored tale, and one that will appeal to audiences both old and new to the genre. Hughes would approve.