Paper Towns introduces us to an intriguing character and decides it doesn’t want to tell her story. She’s Margo, a high school senior who is charismatic and mysterious, the sort of teenager others gossip about, inventing crazy escapades that are almost believable just because she’s so unpredictable and unknowable. Carrying herself with the intense faux-literary soulful gazes of too-cool-for-school types, she’s a reader and a thinker, prone to waxing philosophical while pulling pranks. She has supermodel good looks (because she’s played by one, Cara Delevingne) and a sharp mind, intimidating all around. These are understandable reasons for Quentin (Nat Wolff), the shy nerd who lives across the street, to nurse an unrequited crush. The two teens each bring a particular flavor to the film. She’s a fully stocked spice rack. He’s a sleeve of undercooked Wonder Bread. Want to guess which one becomes our protagonist?
The film opens with its best sequence, an escapade that brings boy and girl together. One late night, she shows up at his bedroom window to conscript his assistance. Her now ex-boyfriend has been cheating with one of her best friends and no one told her. She’s out to prank them all. Margo gets Quentin to be her getaway driver, heading out in his minivan, sneaking into homes of her former friends and, say, leaving a dead fish in the closet, or shaving an eyebrow off a bad bro. It’s all in good fun, and of course Quentin falls even more in love with her as, finished with their mission, they watch the sun come up over Orlando while dancing to a Muzak version of “Lady in Red.” There’s a warm sense of discovery here. Who is this girl?
We don’t get to find out. The next morning, Margo has disappeared. She’s run away from home, seemingly leaving no trace. It’s not the first time, we learn. But this time, Quentin takes it personally. How could she flee after such a magical night with him? Sure enough, he finds some clues, making him a painfully bland protagonist for a limp scavenger hunt, while reducing her to a set of facile puzzle pieces. She’s gone and taken the film’s most intriguing character with her. Instead we focus on the vaguely defined Quentin and his dumb friends (Justice Smith and Austin Abrams, doing what they can with awkward and overfamiliar comic relief) as they talk about girls and prom and senioritis, while slowly trying to figure out where Margo went and why.
Eventually, the guys think they’ve figured out her destination and decide to road trip there, with two girls from school (Halston Sage and Jaz Sinclair) tagging along as well. What follows is standard teen movie shenanigans – social bonding, worrying about drinking and sex, pop culture references, partying, worrying about the future – strung along a mystery that never feels particularly urgent. Director Jake Schreier doesn’t do much with the camera beyond keep the proceedings slick and in frame, while coaxing decent work from underwritten roles as the group of characters never comes into clear focus. They’re background players for our plain, foolishly lovesick, lead. Meanwhile, the logistics of their plan (what about money? or parents?) never becomes a concern. And why doesn’t Margo’s family get more worked up about a clear missing person case. It’s waved off with an overly convenient explanation in half a scene.
The screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, adapted from a book by John Green, doesn’t have the same sharply drawn characters or well-earned sentimentality of their previous collaboration, The Fault in Our Stars. It may share the Green formula of moody kids and quirky habits, deep thoughts and hard emotions. But there’s a hollow feeling to this one, a flat, uncurious dawdling. It creates three stereotypical high school guys, a little dumb and a lot blinkered. They’re just not interesting or complicated, remaining thinly developed types. (The girls are instantly more remarkable without ever getting the chance to step into the spotlight and prove it.) There are some charming moments – an impromptu Pokémon sing-along, a coincidentally timely Confederate flag joke – but I never felt invested in these characters or their relationships.
An almost reasonably diverting road trip, the movie is nonetheless haunted by the one character who isn’t even around for most of it, who in her brief appearances is so much more interesting than the people we actually follow. By the time we learn what happened to Margo, it’s a let down, not because there’s no resolution, but because we’ve come all this way just to see her complete a transformation into a symbol. She makes such an impact in the opening, it’s hard to watch her end up not a character, but a lesson to be learned. She’s too cool for such a fate. The movie ends with Quentin narrating his epiphany, teasing us with info about what Margo was up to, and then saying, “That’s her story to tell.” Something tells me that would’ve been the better story.