Like a good prom date, a good high school movie just needs to keep you entertained and out of trouble for a couple hours. A great high school movie - The Breakfast Club, Rebel Without a Cause, Boyz n the Hood - will linger in your mind well into adulthood.
Paper Towns, a mild coming-of-age mystery adapted from Fault in Our Stars author John Green's bestselling novel of the same name, is only a good high school movie. It's got an appealing cast and a promising premise, as a group of high school seniors embarks on an adventure to find a missing classmate.
Directed by Jake Schreier from a script by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, Paper Towns begins as a romance, picks up steam as a mystery and ultimately finds its soul as a road movie about friendship.
But the precocious beauty whose disappearance sets the plot in motion - a myth of a girl named Margo - is the kind of character who actually improves a movie by vanishing.
Hyper-articulate teens are a specialty of Green's, and his young adult readers love him for it. Like another bard of middle-class high school drama, filmmaker John Hughes, Green gives teens credit for having a rich interior life, and that's a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, in the translation to screen, articulate often becomes pretentious, and Margo's world weariness is never given a motivation apart from a 30-second scene of her hand-wringing parents.
The far more appealing protagonist of the movie is Margo's neighbor, Quentin - "Q" to his friends - a loyal band geek played by Nat Wolff who's in love with her. Q is the kind of high school senior who dresses up like an iPod and answers the door for trick-or-treaters on Halloween night; Margo (Cara Delevingne) is the kind who gets picked up in a red convertible.
Schreier manages to find a believable sense of place in Q's hometown of upscale suburban Florida, with its tidy yards and sterile office parks, and Neustadter and Weber, who also adapted "A Fault in Our Stars" for director Josh Boone, have a feel for the mundane moments of teen life that carry an emotional punch.
Wolff's portrayal is natural and open, with clenched hands, longing glances and an endearing awareness that he has some growing up to do. His band geek friends feel authentic, too: There's the earnest Radar (Justice Smith), who is too mortified by his family's massive collection of black Santas to bring home his more mature girlfriend, and the hormonally driven Ben (Austin Abrams), who's the group's puckish instigator.
When Q and his friends discuss girls over a game console or bond over the singing of a Pokemon song, their Musketeer-like camaraderie is convincing, or at least as much as a PG-13-rated conversation between adolescent males can be.
But when Margo arrives at Q's window promising, "Basically this is gonna be the best night of your life," something feels false about her swagger. I can't blame Delevingne, a model who is transitioning to film acting, for Margo's troubles as a character - she delivers fortune cookie lines like, "You have to get lost before you find yourself," with conviction, and her raspy voice and power eyebrows communicate just the right amount of danger for Orlando.
When Margo leads Q on a night of mischief at the expense of some disloyal friends, it shakes Q out of his comfort zone and sends Margo into a spell of self-seriousness, as she stares glumly over the skyline bemoaning her "paper town with paper people."
The movie's title is a reference to a cartographer's term for a fake place that exists only to catch copycat mapmakers, and a central theme in "Paper Towns" is learning to discern the authentic from the affected and the real from the idealized. The problem is that Margo's affectation is her depth.
The good news is, she disappears the next morning, and Q's efforts to find her take on a satisfying Sherlockian vibe, as clues come in the form of old maps, folk records and Walt Whitman poems.
By the time Q, Radar, Ben, Radar's girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and Margo's friend Lacey (Halston Sage) pile in a car to go find Margo and get back for prom night, the movie is really rolling. As summer and college await, they wind their way up the East Coast to the beat of a mood-boosting indie rock soundtrack, their romantic tensions and roadside high jinks carrying the bittersweetness of a last adventure.
There's an old-fashioned chasteness to their banter - even about sex - that's charming in part because it's so rare in modern movies. It seems unlikely anybody's mom will get angry about Paper Towns. Rarer still is a studio movie for young adults that concerns itself not with vampires or the apocalypse but with the mundane matters of the heart.