There is a lot that I liked about "Paper Towns", but ultimately, the main thrust of the story left me cold and made the film a letdown.
Most of the time, an actor playing a teenager on television, or in a film, is much older than the character they are portraying. This is especially noticeable on television when whole groups of teenagers are played by actors who are close to paying off their first mortgages. In film, it is a little more acceptable, because the age disparity seems a little less noticeable. But this seems to lead to a disconnect between the characters and the audience. If an actor is so obviously older than their character they have to work that much harder to make the portrayal convincing. Yes, they can rely on past experiences to help make the portrayal seem more real, but this seems to generally become more difficult as time passes.
Side note: The funniest thing about Netflix's "Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp" is the ongoing wink-wink about all of the actors, the youngest of which is probably in their thirties, playing teenagers. At one point, investigative journalist Elizabeth Banks tries to convince her editor that she can go undercover at the camp as a teen. No one believes it, until she pins her hair back. Gasp!
In "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl", Earl, the Dying Girl and Me all seem to be real kids going to a real mid-city high school, presenting a very realistic representation of what it is like to be a teen. It's a superb film presented in a unique fashion.
"Paper Towns" is more problematic.
Quentin (Nat Wolff, "The Fault In Our Stars") has lived in an Orlando, Florida subdivision, across the street from Margo (Cara Delevingne, a British supermodel, the upcoming "Suicide Squad") for most of his life. Once the best of friends, they have grown apart as Margo begins to move in other circles. Quentin and his best buddies, Ben (Austin Abrahams) and Radar (Justice Smith), are the good kids in school; hard workers, they have never missed a day of school, they attend band practice and spend hours every night at home studying. Margo is very different - a beautiful girl and slightly needy; she frequently disappears, leaving clues about her whereabouts, only to return a few days later. Shortly after breaking up with her boyfriend, Margo asks Quentin to help her extract revenge on those she feels have wronged her. After they pull off some pranks, she disappears and Quentin decides to find her. He believes Margo has left him clues, to help him find her and join her at a Paper Town (a non-existent town created by map makers to help protect against having their work plagiarized) in upstate New York. He enlists the help of Ben and Radar, Margo's best friend, Lacey (Halston Sage) and Radar's girlfriend, Angela (Jaz Sinclair) with the caveat that they have to be back in two days for Prom. The road trip begins.
Directed by Jake Schreier ("Robot & Frank") and written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (the team who wrote "The Fault In Our Stars", "The Spectacular Now", "Pink Panther 2"), "Paper Towns" is also adapted from a popular John Green novel.
The three actors who play the best friends are all good. Quentin, Ben and Radar are all very distinct, each has a very different personality, but they share some of the same outlook and goals, making it easy to see why they are pals. Nat Wolff (who was Ansel Elgort's friend in "The Fault In Our Stars") is great as Quentin, the teen who watches his high school crush from a distance. He has always loved Margo and you can see both regret and resignation in his face when he talks about her, reflecting back on their earlier friendship not that he is a teen about to graduate from high school. Quentin has always followed the rules, done everything that was expected of him, and led a fairly normal high school life. He has also watched Margo's life, her adventures, her escapes, from his bedroom window. He secretly longs to go along for the ride, but his upbringing prevents this. Every time she goes on a trip, runs away to join a band, has an amazing experience, you can see Quentin soaking up every word. But he has to study, he has to get good grades, he has to go to college. As a result, his high school experience is tame compared to Margo's and this is probably why they have moved in different directions for a number of years.
Wolff is very good at displaying all of Quentin's high schoolishness balancing that with the longing looks signaling his desire to have something different, something new, something exciting.
When Margo disappears, he realizes this is another of her mysteries and starts to look for clues, believing the trail of bread crumbs is being left for him. He seems almost too willing to follow these morsels of information wherever they may lead.
He is so desperate to follow Margo he talks his best friends, Ben and Radar, into going along for the ride. Both are essentially mirror images of Quentin's school ethic, but with very different upbringings and personalities. Ben, as played by Austin Abrahams, is the clown of the trio, always ready with a sarcastic quip or joke and prone to telling tall tales about all of the girls he has had sex with. Radar, played by Justice Smith, has a girlfriend whom he is deeply infatuated with, but their relationship is still platonic, because it frightens him a little and he is afraid to introduce her to his parents. Both Ben and Radar are really looking forward to the Senior Prom - Ben is confident he can find a hot girl to take as his date and Radar is desperate to go with his girlfriend, because they have made a special promise to one another.
With every turn, you never mistake that these two are teenagers; they are smart, but less worldly than adults, a bit hyperactive at times, silly.
All three seem comfortable as teenagers even though they are each over 19. Maybe what they say about boys maturing more slowly is true.
As the object of Quentin's obsession, Cara Delevingne plays Margo. Delevingne is beautiful and it is easy to see why she is a supermodel because she has a slightly different look. But it is also difficult to see past this; as Margo, Delevingne nevers makes us forget that she is a supermodel, even when wearing the more dowdy clothing of a teenage slacker. It doesn't help that we often see her through Quentin's eyes, allowing the filmmakers to slow the image down just as she is turning her head, her hair slowly blowing across her face. She never really loses herself and we never really believe she is Margo. There is a scene when she is walking down a street in a small town. She instantly stands out, which is how Quentin spots her in the first place. But she would stand out on the busy streets of New York or London. It is essentially impossible to believe she is a high school student.
Delevingne clearly had no trouble maturing.
Margo extracts revenge on her boyfriend and circle of friends, all of whom she believes have been unfaithful. This is how she entices Quentin back into her world. She needs help, she needs a car. Honestly, why does she even care about her friends? Part of her mythology is that she runs away, hangs out with touring bands, is a free spirit. Does she really need them? Does she really care? Making her so vengeful seems a bit of a stretch.
Then, when she disappears, she starts to leave clues for the freshly entranced Quentin. This leads Quentin to burst out of his shell and take a journey.
The journey itself is good – each of the participants learns about themselves and their friends – the end result isn't so great. Without revealing too much, it doesn't hit the right note and makes Margo seem even more selfish than she already is.
Essentially, Margo seems like she might be a fresher character, a beautiful teenager ready to blaze her own trail. But she eventually becomes the most stereotypical of movie teens; the beautiful teenager who is self-involved and boring.
Because so much of "Paper Towns" is about Margo and how exotic and challenging she is, the film ultimately is a letdown. It is simply too difficult to imagine Delevingne playing this character effectively and ultimately, there are problems with the character of Margo herself that make her seem less than the perfect high school wet dream.