It was fairly easy to see the appeal of John Green’s first big-screen adaptation, The Fault in Our Stars: a teen romance where everyone had a terminal illness, the combination of jokey banter (to mask their pain) and teen mythology (these guys were certain to live fast, die young, and leave good-looking corpses), it was the kind of hit that makes a career. And with Paper Towns, so it has proved to be.
Quentin (Nat Wolff) has been in love with Margo (Cara Delevingne) ever since she moved in across the road back when they were kids, but as they grew up he focused on school work while she became a local legend for her wild, untameable ways. Then one night she appeared at his window, asking for his help in a revenge plot that would take them all over town – and lead to the best night of his life. The next day she was gone without a trace… well, almost without a trace, and as Quentin and his friends look deeper into the mystery of her disappearance they begin to suspect she might have left clues – clues she wants to lead Quentin to her.
Despite what the trailers might have you believe, this is a lot more about the road-trip – and the bonding that takes place on it – than Quentin’s ‘Big Night’, which is a good thing because the big night is the kind of oversold “night that changed everything” that works a whole lot better when it’s just some guy telling you about it. Then again, the road trip – where pretty much everyone eventually gets what they want, unless you’re a girl in which case what you want is to be with a nerd – is pretty much teen mythologising too. It seems Green’s big hook is telling teens that their lives really are freighted with meaning, presenting them with idealised versions of themselves that he then undercuts just enough to make them plausible (if you don’t think about it too much).
Ironically, while most of this film gets the job done and nothing more, the scenes that really work are the ones where Quentin and his friends just hang out; when Green isn’t hammering home just how amazing his characters really are, it turns out they can be kind of fun.