If you blubbered through John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and the emo-blockbuster squeezed from its bestselling YA pages, you probably won’t cry all that much at the movie constructed from Green’s Paper Towns. Wait, that’s a good thing. None of the main characters die of cancer in Paper Towns and the script by Fault’s Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, of the ever-wonderful (500) Days of Summer, pulls back on the weepy bits in favor of what’s funny, touching and vital. There may be nothing fresh left to find in teens coming of age, but director Jake Schreier (Robot and Frank) fakes it with genuine sincerity.
And he has a winning cast to sell it. Nat Wolff, good enough in Fault, Palo Alto and the upcoming Grandma to make you say — who is this kid, he’s got something — stars as Quentin Jacobson, Q for short. Q is the risk-averse Orlando nerd who’s been crushing on the wild child next door, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), since he was nine and they found a dead body together (no cancer, the dude shot himself). Now Margo is the most popular girl in school and one night she climbs through Q’s window, dressed as a ninja, and leads him on a revenge spree against those who wronged her. No murders, mostly it’s just shaving off a jock’s eyebrow, wrapping a car in plastic and shooting video of her cheating boyfriend’s ant-sized dick. But Q’s heart is beating hard. When Margo doesn’t show up at school — even with prom and graduation coming — Q follows her clues, involving Walt Whitman and Woody Guthrie, to a small New York town that’s not even on the map (cartographers create such fictional towns to protect against copyright infringement, hence paper towns).
On the drive, Q brings along his friends, Radar (Justice Smith) and his girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and horndog Ben (Austin Abrams) and Margo’s bff Lacey (Halston Sage), a honeybunny who inspires Ben’s carnal fantasies. This road trip is booby-trapped with teen clichés. And readers of the book won’t like some crucial changes (what, no Sea World?). But the central romance holds you. Supermodel Delevigne wears down any resentment of yet another Brit playing an American teen. Her flashing eyes and throaty voice indicate the star power to make it in pictures that move. And Wolff is terrific, giving us a romantic image of confused youth to root for. Ok, Paper Towns plays it safe, but its leads are irresistible so we’re never sorry.