As I look at myself now, my mind wanders back to who I was in high school. I think we all do at some point. In my case, it was all just a blur. Would I do anything differently if I could? Probably not. Every choice I made then got me here now, and I like now at this very moment. That said, there are some things I wish I did more of or less of. And there are things I wish I’d cared more about then. The truth is, we all regret high school. If we were this, we wish were had a bit of that too, or the other one around. But there’s no such thing as the perfect high school experience because the very notion is one we made up in our heads. We’re just people. There’s nothing remarkable about us, and yet there is.
And that’s the very theme of John Green‘s latest novel-turned-movie, Paper Towns. The film follows Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff), a soon-to-be high school graduate attempting to track down his always elusive neighbour and secret love interest, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), through the many clues she leaves behind prior to her disappearance.
Even though only one of Green‘s books have been adapted into movies, it’s hard not to notice a pattern between The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns. Some signature motifs include great music, voice-over narrations, witty dialogue, and an ambience reminiscent to classic coming-of-age movies like The Breakfast Club. And with the author’s third movie adaptation — this time of his novel Looking For Alaska — coming out next year, you can expect to find the same pattern there as well.
That said, where The Breakfast Club succeeds, Paper Towns disappoints to a certain extent. While it featured some good elements, and barely any bad ones, it just sits there on the screen( it fails to transcend the story and touch the viewers, and I think that’s the difference between Green‘s freshman and sophomore movie adaptations.
Nat Wolff does a good job as Quentin. I haven’t read the book, but I imagine the character in the novel is much like the one Wolff portrays. He’s quirky and safe, with a set path for himself, and refuses to take any chances that would jeopardise the future he has mapped out for himself. While the performance is a good one overall, in some scenes, the character just becomes too selfish and inconsiderate. I could argue that people are imperfect, but in this particular case, I think what was meant to come off as passion or care missed the mark.
Quentin’s counterpart was his exact opposite. Margo, played by model and actress Cara Delevingne, is daring, careless, and carefree. She has no future plans and doesn’t worry about it. She’s all about the now and saves the future for tomorrow. If I’m to be completely honest, I thought the casting wasn’t the best before I watched the movie. But I was pleasantly surprised by Delevingne‘s performance. She was actually decent as the spontaneous Margo (and didn’t anyone else spot the resemblance between her and Orange is the New Black‘s Taryn Manning?) That said, there wasn’t a lot to like about her.
I had a lot of problems with the character itself. Whether this is due to poor adaptation or the actual source material, I can’t say just yet (as I haven’t read the book), but I’m sure the pages of the novel offer much more insight into the kind of person Margo is. Here, I find myself questioning what it about her that Quentin likes so much. I can understand the appeal of the myth, and this is addressed quite simple by the end of the movie, but as someone who hadn’t read the book, there was no flow there. The movie just skimmed through that part, and as a viewer, you fail to bridge the gap between yourself and Margo.
Another thing I disliked about the character was how — and knowing John Green, this shocked me a bit — unrealistic Margo was. The author’s novels usually feature realistic characters, if even a bit out there at times. But with Margo, I felt like she was out there with an occasional glimpse of relevance. At the same time, I could sort of tell that the book character was a lot more intetesting than her on-screen representation. Still, this is a movie, and save for the ending and a couple of scenes here and there, Margo was more a myth than a person — which is, to some extent, the point of the film. She is dehumanised in a strategic way to show you that, in Green‘s words, it is treacherous to think a person more than a person.
To me, the major downfall of the movie was the imbalance between the coziness of the narrative and the setting, and the edginess of Margo. I just felt like it could have done without the whole mystery element, and just been about belonging — or lack thereof. The final few scenes were fantastic in terms of plot. The execution was so well done, and left me quite satisfied. For once, a high school film took a different turn. And I really, really appreciated the hopeful ending. I just wish the first hour or so featured more of that.
On a lighter note, casting for the friends was very nicely done. For once, 18 year-olds were not the poster children for Hugo. They looked like normal high school seniors. Actors Austin Abrams and Justice Smith do a great job supporting the two leads, especially Wolff, forming two of the three part friendship that looked and felt endearingly authentic.
The film benefitted from a great choice of songs for its score. It was probably my favourite part of the entire film. The music perfectly captured the ambience of the movie. Even the part music was decent!
While John Green may not be venerated as one of the greatest writers of our generation, in my humble opinion, he does well in his genre and creates stories that remain close to the heart. While I don’t think he’s the best writer out there, I wholeheartedly support the notion that his books are among the most quotable out there. And so the script benefits from Green‘s talent and wit in creating dialogue that is authentic and comedic. That said, he does tend to give his characters an unrealistic sense of eloquence that rings untrue to most viewers. I’m not suggesting that people shouldn’t talk like that, but most of his characters — old and young — seem to possess a rich vocabulary, and it’s just not very common.
There is something about the finality of senior year that’s very nostalgic. Personally, that’s why these are my favourites to watch. It’s an overlapping sense of ending and beginning that is exciting, terrifying, and humbling all at the same time, and while I do think that Paper Towns possessed certain elements that could have made it a memorable high school movie, it ultimately fails to reach the finish line (here, the viewer). I can list a few high school films that are better. Still, this is a good enough effort from director Jake Schreier and his team.
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