Paper Towns, and the Permanent Teenhood of YA Adaptations

Paper Towns

Paper Towns
Directed by Jake Schreier
Opens July 24

Over in grown-up movies, there’s supposedly a masculinity crisis going on, where leading men are all really leading boys and we have to import Brits and Hemsworths to approximate the correct levels of machismo. But I don’t know; I think Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon work just fine as adults. I see more of a teenager crisis in the YA movie boom. Paper Towns, for example, adapted from the John Green novel, is a movie about the relationship (and, pointedly and cleverly, the lack thereof) between two teenagers: a 20-year-old (Nat Wolff) and a 23-year-old (Cara Delevigne).

Actors have always toyed around with their real ages; not everyone looks their actual age and not everyone can (or should) meticulously plan their careers around their real-time aging. It’s called acting, as that Olivier guy told that Hoffman guy (buncha old guys, you can look ’em up). Early-twentysomethings are hardly the most egregious offender, and probably a lot easier for filmmakers who might otherwise have to spend time paging through child labor laws. What feels different, or at least more prevalent, is the way an actor like Wolff, tasked here with playing a sensitive high school senior, must train for three-plus years and five-plus movies playing junior-league sensitive high school seniors, in supporting parts (Stuck in Love; The Fault in Our Stars) and non-starters (Admission) before graduating to the big leagues of still playing a teenager. During these prolonged incubation periods, habits, like the coy smile that looks like it might break into a grin but usually doesn’t and the arms he seems to hold close to his body with tensed shoulders, become ingrained; what might have been unassuming feels less fresh. And then he’s paired with a supermodel with a low-ish, sophisticated voice whose English accent she must iron out who could pass for twenty-five as easily as eighteen, and suddenly scenes of two likable teenagers bonding take on an alien, awkward quality—and not the charming teenage kind.

Which isn’t to say that Paper Towns doesn’t have its charms. Wolff plays gently rule-following Quentin and Delevigne plays confidently rule-flaunting Margo, neighbors and friends since childhood but estranged as teenagers. Quentin has been nursing a crush on Margo more or less since he first laid eyes on her, and her development away from him and into devil-may-care teenage queen, in plain view of his bedroom window, wounds him a little every day. Until, that is, she turns up at that bedroom window for the first time in years, urging him out into the night for an ambitious adventure featuring some light but consistent B&E. They share a magical night, and then she disappears. Not just from his field of window vision, but a full disappearance: no home, no school, just vanishing. But wait: Margo loves to disappear, and loves to leaves clues about her disappearance. Maybe she’s secretly told Quentin where she’s going and how to get there?

In this protracted set-up, Paper Towns presents both a lovely notion (of childhood friends reconnecting in the waning days of their senior year before maybe parting ways forever) and an irresistible mystery hook (where does this girl go?). It takes a while to get there, though, because this is an adaptation of a popular YA novel, which means a constant feeling that some longer text is being both compressed and paid unnecessary homage. Screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber are old hands at this, having adapted Green’s The Fault in Our Stars as well as The Spectacular Now. But this movie feels less lived-in than their earlier YA pictures, at least in its opening section, which struggles in its meandering voiceover (twice arriving at the “here we are the end of senior year” point) and a scene that puts Green’s cutesy dreamo dialogue in the mouths two poor tweens playing the young Quentin and Margo.

Once Quentin and Margo are paired back up for their magical night on the town, the movie picks up, even though Wolff and Delevigne make an odd pair. Green and the filmmakers are clearly interrogating the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope with free-spirited but inscrutable Margo (that becomes even more clear after she makes her offscreen exit), but the actors don’t develop a rhythm together; their night together feels like a near-miss even at its most intimate. The movie manages its performances better in bigger groups, to the point where scenes between Quentin and his best friends Radar (Justice Smith) and Ben (Austin Abrams) feel slow and recited when they have to convey important information, then loose and inviting when they’re forced to share the screen with others. Sometimes it becomes obvious that Smith and Abrams are actual teenagers playing off a guy who’s the cinematic equivalent of a super-senior and the similarly twentysomething Halston Sage (as Lacey, a new gal pal). The whole cast is likable; their chemistry, though, is strangely intermittent.

The movie’s substantial road-trip section, then, is its most fun. Even then, the journey up the interstate from Florida to Upstate New York made me wish for a director with a little more visual lyricism. Director Jake Schreier makes a better-looking movie than the muddled Fault in Our Stars, but the material could’ve used someone like David Gordon Green or David Robert Mitchell—someone more apt to create a real mood and less beholden to the graduation-speech lessons (thankfully withheld from any actual graduation speeches, or college application essays) about taking risks, not playing it safe, and living in the moment. This is a movie where a teenager actually talks about “indelible memories” and no one seems to mind. Some YA material seems, understandably, pitched not at actual seventeen-year-olds matching the characters’ ages, but fourteen-year-olds who are starting to think about what it’ll be like to be seventeen (sort of a more sophisticated version of how High School Musical is a movie about high school designed to tantalize and excite seven-year-olds). So you’ve got twentysomethings playing high school seniors for an audience of high school freshmen, putting another layer of performative distance between the material and its intended subjects. In other words, these aren’t teen-soap plastic hotties, but they still include teenagers who could pass for supermodels. But if you can let yourself go and live in the moment while watching the movie, Paper Towns has an appealing wistfulness and some smart ideas. Some teenagers will like it; so will people who can pass for them.

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