Preview watchers might expect a more sinister film, even though the teasers get the plot points right. Two teens embark on a one-night crime romp, followed by the disappearance of instigator and wild child Margo (Cara Delevingne), who leaves behind a larger-than-life legend and a host of hints around her vanishing. Romantic boy hero Q (Nat Wolff) is drawn by these cryptic clues to leave Tallahassee and follow mysterious Margo to a map site 1,200 miles away that he knows is fictional. It’s crazy love, and while that all sounds like the stuff of thrillers, the crime spree is more like practical jokes, the mystery girl is a lost soul trying to find herself, and the boy’s search is full of both doom and self-celebration. Paper Towns is a lot less edgy (and less clichéd) than the film’s promoters want us to think.
Adapted from the John (The Fault in Our Stars) Green novel, this is a winning, sweet, and unexpectedly unsentimental coming-of-age tale — though nowhere near as profound and well crafted as Me and Earl and the Dying Girl. It defies easy assumptions, though: Q loves flashy, sophisticated Margo, who is clearly out of his cautious depth. But that doesn’t mean Margo is necessarily callous to the qualities he does have. Likewise with Q’s high school buddies, drawn from central casting’s nerd pool, who eventually reveal big flaws and nobilities. The film is more real than you’d expect.
Director Jake Schreier, who made Robot & Frank, has an unencumbered lucid style and makes nice visual contrasts between open spaces and tiny, grimy rooms. He directs the cast with breezy ease. There are too many teenage-movie exchanges, but it sometimes feels improvised, too. The movie drifts through worlds: suspense, teen party romp, but it finally becomes a quest. Q’s grail is Margo, he thinks, but he finds a Paper Town. What he does next is the best part.