Some teen movies resonate with audiences because the characters are so painfully realistic, reflecting our own awkwardness and adolescent angst back at us. Other films, however, operate in a far more aspirational mode, where even the nerdy kids get a chance to date the cheerleader, and all the characters speak with the wit and wisdom of middle-aged screenwriters.
“Paper Towns,” an adaptation of a novel by “The Fault in Our Stars” author John Green, operates resolutely in the latter category, but it’s no less intriguing for its utter artificiality. Even if the smarmily sanctified and beautifully doomed male lead of “Fault” made you want to run screaming from the theater, you may find yourself on board with this movie’s road trip, particularly since it suggests that savvy, sexy and seemingly put-together teen characters might be nothing more than a Rorschach blot upon which others can project their own dreams and inadequacies.
The It Girl of “Paper Towns” is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne of “Anna Karenina”), who entranced her across-the-street neighbor Quentin (Nat Wolff of “Palo Alto”) pretty much from the moment her family moved in a decade earlier. As children, the two explored their Orlando suburb on their bikes, until the day they found the body of a man who’d committed suicide. Late that night, Margo wanted to go to Sea World to investigate his life and learn why he’d killed himself, but the more reserved Quentin declined to join her.
Since then, Margo grew into a glittering wild child while Quentin hunkered down on his books and hung out with fellow nerds Ben (Austin Abrams of “The Kings of Summer”) and Radar (Justice Smith). The neighbors barely speak anymore, until toward the end of their senior year, when Margo gets Quentin to drive her around town on a late-night mission of vengeance against her boyfriend and best friend, who have been carrying on together behind Margo’s back.
For the normally cautious Quentin, the evening is a thrill ride, and Margo tells him that he should always feel his heart pounding the way it is when they’re together. The next day, Margo disappears (she’s run away so frequently that her parents don’t even go looking), and Quentin sets out to find her, following maps and other clues that she’s left behind. (“Paper towns,” incidentally, are fake cities used by mapmakers to catch others who might steal their work.) Once he’s figured out where she’s gone, Quentin sets off on a wild goose chase with Ben, Radar, Radar’s girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and Margo’s popular pal Lacey (Halston Sage of “Neighbors”).
As they make their way up the East Coast, lessons will be learned, attachments will be formed, the mysteries of Margo will be at least partially unraveled and Confederate flag T-shirts will accidentally be purchased. (This gag remains funny, but it has an extra layer of ouch given the events of the past month.)
The screenwriting team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber hew closer to their previous collaboration on “(500) Days of Summer” than their work on “The Fault in Our Stars,” and that’s a good thing. As slick and contrived as the plotting may be from time to time, the writers and director Jake Schreier (“Robot & Frank”) throw in enough charming character moments and literal forward motion (this is a road movie, after all) to avoid getting bogged down in whiny teen solipsism. You might not believe that any of these kids exist, but you’ll enjoy hanging out with them.
Schreier also makes the most of a gifted ensemble: Wolff, Abrams and Smith have a funny and unforced rapport, and Sage makes it easy to believe that her character is off to Dartmouth in the fall. Fashion model Delevingne has relatively little screen time but makes an undeniable impression as a high school heartbreaker, with the smoky eyes and smokier voice destined to send young men into a frenzy; there’s no question why Quentin would hijack his mom’s minivan and drive up I-95 to find her.
If you’re outside of the John Green demographic, your enjoyment of “Paper Towns” will rely upon your willingness to stomach certain contrivances, not to mention a soundtrack stuffed with the songs of today’s youth. (Composer Ryan Lott’s score can barely get a note in edgewise.) But even those adults who remained resolutely dry-eyed during “The Fault in Our Stars” might find themselves wanting to hop aboard for this journey, even if the seats are covered in Cheetos dust.