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John Green's latest book-to-film adaptation, Paper Towns (out July 24), has a lot to boast. Green himself—author of last year's teen drama The Fault in Our Stars—needs no introduction to the rabid YA fanbase. The cast is equally noteworthy. Nat Wolff—the 2015 answer to Say Anything-era John Cusack—is elevated from supporting character (in Faults) to leading man, as the shy high school boy Quentin. But the film's most talked about It Factor is undoubtedly the immensely popular model-slash-eyebrow-icon-slash-Instagram-darling Cara Delevingne, who steps into acting shoes—for the first time as a leading lady (well, kind of)—in the role of Margo Roth Spiegelman.
For the 21-plus age demographic, Paper Towns is perhaps less of an easy sell. There's something about the trailer that feels not self-aware enough—she's too manic, too pixie. "Margo's life was a series of unbelievably epic adventures," Quentin says in voice-over. She's a dream girl who whispers sweet, wise-beyond-her-years nothings, and she gets the film's male protagonist to step out of his comfort zone. She changes his life.
Those things are all true of Paper Towns. It's a mythologization of the beautiful, mysterious girl, but Paper Towns doesn't box itself into those restrictions. Margo, who's never content just being content, ends up running away from her Florida hometown, after a night of mostly harmless revenge pranks (on her cheating ex-boyfriend) with her neighbor Quentin, whom she easily recruits, because a) how could you resist? and b) Margo is just that kind of girl. She's never taken "no" for an answer; she's never had to. It helps that Quentin has adored her from a distance for basically his whole life. The next morning, Quentin wakes up elated, believing this is the first day of his new high school life. Instead, he wakes up to a different kind of reality.
This is where Paper Towns steps outside of the typical high school movie arc: His too-good-to-be-true dreams don't come true, as he finds out that Margo has run away from home.
Like the enigma Margo is, she leaves behind clues—including Woody Guthrie references and Walt Whitman lines—which Quentin eagerly puts the pieces of together in order to find her. Paper Towns really takes off—and finds its most charming quality—not when Margo is on the screen, surprisingly, but when Quentin and his entourage (including his nerdy buds Ben and Radar, and two other cool girls Lacey and Angela) embark on a road trip to find Margo, whose clues lead them to find out that she's been hiding out in a paper town. "Paper town," by the way, as they explain in the movie, is a fake town cartographers used to add to maps to catch plagiarists. Admittedly, the magic of the movie comes with a good dose of suspension of disbelief—How does Margo just run away like that? How does she make a living? How do these kids just skip school and go on a road trip? Where are their parents?! But for the film's 109-minute run, put away those questions.
Rather than a standard boy-meets-girl, the movie becomes a sweet coming-of-age story for the rest of the gang. Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), especially, carry the comic load of the film. (Their onscreen time is actually better than either Nat's or Cara's.) Unlike its predecessor The Fault in Our Stars, this one is a constant stream of laughs—well, mostly chuckles—without the sappiness. That's not to say it's a better movie than Stars, it's just a different kind. If you're not the grab-a-box-of-tissues kind of moviegoer, then Paper Towns might be a lot more enjoyable.
Instead, Paper Towns is more of a mission-driven road trip comedy.
Nat Wolff's Quentin leads said mission, clearly motivated by his newfound goal to step out of his comfort zone, but in a way, Margo touches all their lives, not just his. Their common goal to go find Margo not only calls for an exciting, cooperative puzzle-solving, but it brings the friends together—Radar's girlfriend Angela, who had felt left out before, is finally introduced to his friends, while popular girl Lacey dismisses social status whereas before she would never be seen with someone like Ben (who crushes on her hard and desperately courts her as a prom date). Everyone gets their last hurrah before going off their separate ways for college, and there's even a mild ticking-time-bomb element, as they try to get back home just in time for prom. (Prom is super important, okay?)
The earnest friend-bonding and adventure-seeking of the movie keeps it from falling off into trash teen fare. Despite some of its cheesy moments, this movie is charming—even without relying on the already-charming Delevingne. Looking for something heartfelt and humorous? Don't write off Paper Towns this weekend.