Saturday, July 25, 2015

Gone Girl: "Paper Towns" wise, sensitive and bittersweet

Paper Towns (2015)
109 min., rated PG-13.

The second screen adaptation of a young adult novel by John Green, "Paper Towns" probably won't earn as much fanfare as 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars," considering this story's teens are less doomed by their mortality than they are by what lies ahead in their future after high school prom and graduation. Director Jake Schreier (2012's "Robot & Frank") and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (who co-wrote the scripts for "The Spectacular Now" and "The Fault in Our Stars") have obviously been through high school and understand that very specific time in a young person's life when he or she is about to transition into adulthood. The film encourages risk-taking and breaks down the notion of a girl with whom the male protagonist is infatuated with disillusionment, while showcasing a bright ensemble of young actors. Wearing a true heart on its sleeve and in tune with how it feels to come of age, "Paper Towns" is sensitive, engaging and emotionally satisfying, notwithstanding a destination that can't help but be a letdown. Even so, isn't how we get there more important?

18-year-old Quentin "Q" Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) knew he was madly in love when Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) moved in across the street in suburban Orlando, Florida. They were friends, but that was then and this is now during their senior year at Jefferson Park High School. He has become such a straight arrow, hitting the books and staying out of trouble even when palling around with best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), while she has become a popular girl with a rebellious, adventurous side. One night after nine years of not talking, Margo sneaks into Quentin's bedroom window, like she used to when they were kids. She explains to him that her boyfriend has been cheating on her with one of her best friends. Her revenge plan requires a getaway driver, so she convinces Quentin to take out his mom's minivan and be her partner-in-crime for an adventure of settling the score with those who have done her wrong. Quentin never feels more alive, but after their one night together, Margo disappears. Quentin knows Margo always liked a good mystery, to the point that he feels she has left him clues to find her. Being spontaneous for once and setting out on a road trip to Upstate New York, he continues his scavenger hunt, while fortifying the bond between his pals. No matter the outcome, the trip won't be for nothing.

No matter how many familiar earmarks it hits, "Paper Towns" dares to be a little unusual in its journey, setting itself enough apart from the pack of teen movies. It's nothing short of refreshing to find a teen-focused film, with teen characters who actually look and act like real teens, that actually listens to them with a well-observed eye. They are smart, thoughtful and hyper-verbal, while still being authentically drawn beyond script constructs, but the ways in which parental involvement is completely nil almost makes them seem like characters out of a Peanuts cartoon. With that said, the lack of parental consequences becomes a bit of an oversight. Mrs. Jacobsen (Cara Buono), Quentin's mother, exists to drop him off at school in the mornings and then nonchalantly allows him to take her minivan on a 1,200-mile road trip. One running quirk that works involves Radar being embarrassed to bring girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) over to his house due to his parents building the world's biggest collection of black Santa Clauses to be in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Promoted to lead after supporting roles in 2013's "Stuck in Love," 2013's "Palo Alto," and 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars," Nat Wolff is terrific as Quentin. Totally free of artifice or self-satisfaction, the charismatic 20-year-old actor is tasked with a challenge to be a nice guy but never a bland one. Without him, Quentin would not be so instantly sympathetic or appealing. Cool, mysterious, and multifaceted, Margo Roth Spiegelman could be seen as a selfish creation, although is she really asking to be found or even understood? The character is more of an interesting, self-aware enigma and intentionally more of the other characters' idea of a character. No one can imagine anyone else playing Margo than the alluring but relatable-looking Cara Delevingne, a Victoria's Secret model-turned-actress who brings a tough disposition and a free-spirited playfulness. Her early scenes with Wolff on their final night out have a dreamy sort of magic to them, and even in Margo's absence, Delevingne still makes a lasting impression. Austin Abrams, as the all-talk Ben, and newcomer Justice Smith, as the cautious Radar, are both endearing naturals who go well beyond comic-relief and sounding-board status and form a sweet and authentic camaraderie with Wolff's Quentin (the trio's rendition of the "Pokémon" theme song and a shout-out to Disney family picture "Snow Dogs" are both amusing supplements to their friendship). Also, Halston Sage (2014's "Neighbors") is warm and radiant as Lacey, Margo's best friend who's tired of being misjudged, and Jaz Sinclair is just as lovely and down-to-earth as Angela, Radar's girlfriend who's much, much less high-maintenance than Radar makes her out to be.

Throughout, the tone of "Paper Towns" pretty deftly blends road-trip comedy and affecting teen drama without overstepping into farce or killing anyone off with a fatal disease. Well-placed indie musical choices, like Twin Shadow's "To the Top" and Haim's "Falling," also couldn't be more perfect. Before anyone goes missing, the film efficiently develops the collapse of Quentin and Margo's friendship and hits on a key point in their childhood adventuresthey find a man dead in a parkthat adds an early pall of melancholy. The titular term, "paper towns," is also hinted at by Margo when she ends her late night with Quentin at the office window of downtown Orlando's Sun Trust building, overlooking the town. (It's later made clear that paper towns are fictitious places listed on maps to prevent plagiarism and copyright infringement.) The reasons and details pertaining to Margo's disappearance and reappearance are frustrating when they aren't fully revealed, but once one realizes this is really Quentin's story, the use of Margo becomes a way of touching upon the idea that no one can ever truly know someone's reasons for his or her actions. Without coming off artificial or cloying, "Paper Towns" ends on a wise and bittersweet note with the realization that we all go in different directions after high school. Even if the viewer is well out of high school, the low-key poignancy isn't bound to go unfelt. It just might speak to you.

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