Saturday 22 August 2015

Paper Towns (2015) - Movie Review

The plot: Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a high school senior who has his life all planned out… until his next-door neighbour/crush Margo (Cara Delevingne) climbs into his bedroom, asking for his help in a little revenge scheme. After an eventful night, Margo disappears and no-one knows where she’s gone. However, after Quentin finds a precariously hidden clue to her whereabouts, he and his best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) follow the breadcrumb trail she left behind in the hopes that Quentin will get the chance to reunite with Margo and tell her how he really feels.

Yeah, in case it hasn’t been made clear already, this is a fairly typical coming-of-age story. You’ve got the main character who learns to come out of his shell in the face of leaving school and becoming an adult, all thanks to a romantic interest who is care-free and more than a little quirky. We’ve also got the designated comic relief best friend in Ben along with Radar as the token, and said character’s tokenism ventures into the painfully awkward at times with how he is written with his ethnicity in mind. I mean, when the only black guy in the film has a girlfriend who is the only black girl in the film and his parents have a quirk about wanting to own the largest collection of black Santas in the world, it can feel like you’re being beaten over the head at times.

Not that he’s alone when it comes to blunt characterisation, as Quentin’s mission to find Margo has the expected Captain Ahab feel to it of him hunting after the unattainable. It’s a shame that they have to name-drop the literary character a number of times in the film, making the already heavy-handed analogy feel even worse. And then there’s Ben, the majority of whose lines early on revolves around wanting to sleep with Quentin’s mother. Yeah, that joke gets old rather quickly. But, these are surprisingly minor things, as all three of them together feel like a trio of friends who have known each other for as long as they have in-story. They understand each other’s mindsets, they don’t wildly overreact when someone does something mildly annoying or stupid, like the aforementioned MILF pining, and we keep seeing moments that genuinely feel like things close friends would get involved in. There’s something weirdly relatable about them singing the Pokémon theme as a means of psyching themselves up to climb into a dilapidated and creepy-looking souvenir shop.

Speaking of said shop, might as well get into the mystery that the majority of the plot revolves around. The progression of Quentin and his friends finding and following the clues they find is well-handled in terms of realism, as the steps taken honestly do feel like the actions of someone who would be following this esoteric puzzle IRL, but this unfortunately comes at the cost of the film’s pacing. The scene where they sing to strengthen their resolve? That comes around the second or third time they enter the shop to find the next clue, inter-cut with scenes of them at school and a house party. Not only does it kind of lessen the impact that the scene would have otherwise, it also feels like the scenes needed some re-arranging to keep things flowing instead of literal re-treading.

But, even with how the mystery element pans out, the core relationship between Quentin and Margo that is the drive that keeps Q going on the path is done refreshingly well. We don’t get any standard clichés involving them being inseparable since they met, and we even get some acknowledgement of the plot conveniences needed to keep things going. The initial revenge scene is made believable through Margo’s reasoning for picking Q in the first place, and the film turns the fact that he is following the trail as far as he is and turning it into a surprisingly deft scene concerning teen romance and the mystifying that most people do with their crushes. Now that is something we could have used more of, instead of the ham-fisted Moby Dick analogies.

Given how this is pretty blatant hipster-porn, what with the Mountain Goats posters and massive vinyl collections, it’s to be expected that not every attempt at profundity is successful. Aside from the aforementioned trope of getting the scheduled introvert to open up to the possibilities of life, we also get the scene that gives the film its title where Margo is expounding about the ‘paper towns’. As much as it irks me whenever someone tries to convince me that something is inherently 'fake', considering the side order of pretence that usually comes with such discussions, this does that slightly less so as both Margo as a character and the film as a whole seem aware of those words and who is saying them, admitting that Margo herself isn’t much different from the 'paper people'. Said demystifying adds a lot to the look into high school crushes as well.

All in all, between this and The Fault In Our Stars, John Green is quickly becoming the anti-Nicholas Sparks when it comes to movie adaptations. If Sparks is the guy who plays the piano because it gets him dates, Green is the guy who messes around with an MPC in his free time just for fun. The mystery can be a bit hit-and-miss, and the characterisation can get a bit head-scratching, but the interactions between the characters are well-handled thanks to some very warm and natural-feeling dialogue where the comedy fits just right for an audience that can still relate to a coming-of-age story. The key relationship between Q and Margo makes for a nice change of pace from the hokeyness we usually get, and it’s even willing to admit the faults of its participants where appropriate. For those who don’t have the immediately knee-jerk reaction to anything hipster, and who can stick it out through a high school romance to get your comedy, I’d recommend checking this one out.

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