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Paper Towns | Review

Me and Earl and the Pixie Girl: Schreier Adapts Teen Schmaltz for Sophomore Effort

paper_towns_posterDirector Jake Schreier takes on the saga of author John Green (the man responsible for 2014’s teen cancer tearjerker The Fault in Our Stars), adapting his novel Paper Towns for the big screen. Adolescent themes and returning cast mates from Josh Boone’s earlier film furthers a sort of genetic relationship between the two films, which manages to be another glossy yet glaringly inauthentic portrayal of precocious teens laying their cherished wastelands to rest as they ascend into the structured responsibility of adulthood. Fleeting moments of inspiration manage to recall, in a sort of unabashed nostalgic glee, the spontaneity behind moments managing to reach indelibly memorable heights from such an undeveloped period in lives of the generally privileged. However, Schreier, Green, and adapting screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber fail in their ability to realistically convey modern teenage characters this time around, and it’s difficult to be invested in their specific adventure when we’re constantly distracted by a manufactured inauthenticity in their scrubbed characterizations.

Quentin (Nat Wolff) and Margo (Carla Delevigne) have grown up together as neighbors. As children, they set of on adventures together in the warm Florida sun, but as teenagers they drifted apart, with Quentin floating to the periphery of the high school scene as Margo became a magnetic wunderkind. When Margo suddenly appears late one night their senior year asking to borrow his mother’s car, Quentin acquiesces and finds himself in a revenge scheme as Margo pranks her cheating ex-boyfriend, currently sleeping with one of her close friends. Their night ends with a magical moment for Quentin, who is dismayed to discover Margo runs away the next day. But in their childhood, she’d always left clues behind to suggest what she was up to, and so he begins to follow her enigmatic trail.

Nat Wolff, the plucky comic relief from The Fault in Our Stars and the possible progeny of Tina Fey in Admission (2013) scores his most likeable characterization to date, though as a fashionably defined, wholly well-adjusted outsider with an appropriately diverse group of friends. In a superficial sense, it’s cute to see such a bright cluster of fantasy teen characters in a film perhaps a bit too eager to recall the vintage styling of a John Hughes (and as rather euphemistically defined Floridians, no less).

A road-trip film centered on another of those pixie dreams girls (though this one’s more languid and sultry than manic), with great dismay we realize Paper Towns has no genuine heart. A smitten dude sets off to claim the dubious love of his dream girl, a young woman he tracks based solely on a set of cloying ‘clues’ utilizing the likes of Woody Guthrie and Walt Whitman. And that’s basically it.

The relatively unknown Carla Delevigne, who has appeared in supporting roles in films by Joe Wright and Michael Winterbottom already, is appealing mainly for her striking beauty, though her look and tone makes her seem like a more palatable version of Margaux Hemingway (or as an odd amalgamation of what a Fanning mixed with a Kinski would look like). Too cool for school (literally), the whole Margo mythos plays rather clumsily, a smug, self-important portrait of adolescent hubris.

Most disappointing is how Paper Towns presents us with a character of advanced tastes yet turns around and asks us to believe such a soul would spend her time with jocks and vapid blondes (though pains are taken to explain Halston Sage’s Lacey has a brain, too—“I’m going to Dartmouth,” she proffers as evidence). Ambivalently charming, until it hits a few sour notes when exposing these conservative teens to anything pertaining to adult functions like sex, alcohol, and bodily fluids, all’s well that ends well in yet another film suggesting our continued cultural fascination with the lives of schoolchildren.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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