The title of “Paper Towns” refers to a trick that cartographers use to keep their maps from being copied by competitors. But it also describes, in a less literal sense, that brand of suburban disillusionment where everything and everyone in life seems phony, stifling and two-dimensional — a condition to which some sensitive teenagers can be especially susceptible. If it’s authenticity these young adults seek, they could do far worse than this second film drawn from a John Green bestseller (after last year’s hit “The Fault in Our Stars”): It may not subvert every cliche of the high-school romance genre, but director Jake Schreier’s coming-of-age dramedy nonetheless pulses with moving and melancholy moments as it follows a 17-year-old boy who spends an unforgettable night with the girl of his dreams, then decides to pursue her when she suddenly leaves town the next day.
Athough it shares several producers, a writing team (Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber) and an actor (Nat Wolff) with Josh Boone’s adaptation of “The Fault in Our Stars,” Schreier’s film seems unlikely to match its predecessor’s runaway commercial success ($307 million worldwide). Which is a bit of a shame, insofar as “Paper Towns” turns out to be the better movie — less tearjerking and more affecting, and populated by characters who are presented not as paragons of cancer-riddled virtue, but rather as flawed, ordinary young individuals who are touchingly vulnerable to the social pressures and sexual anxieties of contemporary teenage life. That’s true even of those who try to rise above (or sink below) it all, like Quentin Jacobson (Wolff), a high-school senior in Orlando, Fla., who has long since absorbed the perks of being a wallflower. He’s a good student, shy but not irredeemably awkward, and utterly disinterested in going to prom, unlike his two best friends, the smart, self-conscious Radar (Justice Smith) and the goofy, perpetually horny Ben (Austin Abrams).
But Quentin is a romantic at heart, having nursed a longtime crush on his beautiful next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), who used to climb in through his bedroom window when they were kids — a habit she dropped around the time she became the most popular girl in school. So it’s something of a blast from the past when she appears one night and asks him to chauffeur her around the neighborhood while she takes care of some pressing business. Figuring what the hell, Quentin becomes Margo’s accomplice over a long and crazy night of revenge against those friends who have betrayed her. Whether they’re busting her cheating b.f. (Griffin Freeman), practicing some strategic hair removal on a hated jock (R.J. Shearer), or wrapping a girlfriend’s car in plastic, their pranks leave Quentin feeling alive in a way he rarely has. He also finds himself falling more in love than ever with Margo, a tougher, more independent-minded girl than you’d expect from her high-school queen-bee status.
That Margo is something of a mystery becomes even more apparent the next day, when she runs away from home — not for the first time, according to her blithely indifferent mother (Susan Macke Miller). But Quentin is bent on finding her, especially after he stumbles on what appears to be a trail of clues that she left behind — a Woody Guthrie poster here, a message in an abandoned mini-mall there — and that will lead him to a real-life “paper town” where she may have taken up temporary residence. Tagging along for this unplanned road trip are Ben, Radar and his g.f., Angela (Jaz Sinclair), and popular girl Lacey Pemberton (Halston Sage), who’s worried about what might have happened to Margo. Yet the group’s concern takes on conflicting shades as Quentin’s determination begins to tilt into obsession, and he learns firsthand the dangers of idealizing someone he doesn’t really know, while taking for granted the ones he does.
Despite the movie’s puzzle-like structure, Schreier (who directed the 2012 Sundance fave “Robot & Frank”) keeps “Paper Towns” recognizably steeped in the common rituals of young adulthood, which is to say the well-worn conventions of so much teen cinema. There are house parties and pop quizzes, locker-side confrontations and urine accidents, plus some raunchy talk about hot moms and sexually transmitted diseases. Large quantities of beer are consumed and disgorged, and parental supervision is pretty minimal. Quentin and his friends play out their adventures against a wall-to-wall indie-rock soundtrack that proves overly insistent yet undeniably effective, catching us up in a swirl of emotion as the characters make their way up the East Coast and back, all en route to a moving prom-night climax.
But if “Paper Towns” can seem a touch familiar, it rarely feels pro forma. Neustadter and Weber’s largely faithful adaptation strikes a nice balance between the hyper-eloquence of Green’s dialogue and the natural rhythms of everyday teenspeak, and they keep up a steady stream of low-key, character-driven humor — including one priceless, regionally specific sight gag that feels even more pointed now than it would have a month earlier. And while the production might well have benefited from a richer, more varied sense of place (Charlotte, N.C., stood in for both Orlando and upstate New York), what distinguishes Schreier’s work here is his ability to sustain a bittersweet mood of anticipation and regret, as his characters struggle to take hold of the fleeting, ungraspable moment. Whether it’s focusing on Radar’s sweet, nervous courtship of Angela, or the unexpected bond that forms between Ben and Lacey, this tale of self-discovery stays true to Green’s poignant message that people are always more complicated than the neat identities we try to assign them.
Bearing out that theme most of all are the film’s young actors, all of whom get the opportunity to reveal more than one dimension of character. Wolff, who’s present in just about every scene, manages to hold the center as a young man who isn’t overly concerned about either standing out or fitting in, and whose behavior can often be as hesitant as it is impulsive. But the real find here is Delevingne, an English actress who, with her subtly smoky voice and piercing gaze, makes the girl of Quentin’s fantasies a singularly charismatic presence, all the more so due to her limited screen time. What ultimately happens to Margo may seem somewhat ambiguous by film’s end, but on the evidence of her work here, this striking actress is here to stay.