What’s your recurring high school fantasy? You know you have one. Where you return to high school, knowing then … what you know now?
Some settle scores with bullies using newly acquired black belts; some ask out the prettiest girl who’d granted that one chance we were too clueless to recognize until years later, whereupon we said, “doh!” and palm-smacked our heads. Some hit that jumper that banged off the rim and lost the big game.
Remember Napoleon Dynamite’s high school football-obsessing uncle? There’s a little of that idiot in all of us.
American high school movies are an American subculture, and while “Paper Towns” is nowhere near the caliber of a “Dazed and Confused,” and has half the energy of that other (now ancient) film about Florida high-schoolers (“Porky’s”), it’s a respectable new entry into the genre.
It’s got a little mystery, it’s got a road trip, the usual high school party-party, but mostly it’s a pine and sigh for the most beautiful girl movie, the piner being one Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff).
Poor Quentin, he had it bad from the start. Prettiest girl Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) moved next door when they were very young; they became best buddies of the bike-riding, woods exploring, and climbing-in-bedroom-window variety.
Until she got gorgeous, of course, and left him in the dust—he being a natural nerd, and she being much too fast for his ilk. But he loved her the minute he set eyes on her. I bet you can still name the prettiest girl in school.
And Then One Day …
Lo and behold, here she comes again, dancing ‘neath the starry skies—like a “Cars” lyric—crawling in his bedroom window 10 years later (shortly before prom) with a plan. Dares him to drive her around in his parents’ car. Tells him, “This is going to be the best night of your life.” Who could resist? Not Q.
Turns out, Q’s needed as chauffeur/getaway-driver for a Margo ninja revenge spree—gotta buy supplies! First order of business: alert some parents about basement activities, then smartphone-film the cheating, birthday-suit-wearing ex-boyfriend (Griffin Freeman) high-flying out new girlfriend’s basement window to his car. Oops—steering wheel lock! Boo-yah! And more such payback hijinks of that nature.
Blow This Joint
After the revenge fun’s been had, Q and Margo stand in an empty office high-rise much like (actually, exactly like) Slater in “Dazed and Confused” standing on the Moon Tower (water tower) looking out over the nighttime town and pronouncing it dead. It’s a paper town, Margo says, full of paper people.
It’s a common high school movie theme, which could be labeled the “Let’s blow this popsicle stand” moment.
Before they part at dawn, she holds thumb and forefinger an inch apart and informs Q that’s the size of his comfort zone, and that he’s going to need to take bigger risks if he wants to get the life he wants, and, quite possibly—her. But we suspect he merely got used.
Much like the geek trio of “Freaks and Geeks,” Quentin’s one of three nerds-kateers; the others being the bookish, shy African-American Radar (Justice Smith) and the extroverted, hormonally flush Ben (Austin Abrams), who fulfills the never-gets-old gag/high school comical gold nugget—the cracking voice.
By the way, these are not your father’s geeks. Geeks nowadays are borderline seriously cool compared to geeks of yesteryear—they maybe can’t even be called nerds or geeks anymore. They have witty patter, they’re highly fluent in Ebonics (and the accompanying body language thereof), they have dance moves, and they’re almost comfortable enough in their own skins to be taken seriously by the coolest of mean girls.
Gone Girl and the Hardy Boys
And then, “poof!” Just like that—Margo’s vamoosed. The day after the night of revenge, she doesn’t show up at school for days. She’s leaving home, bye-bye—just like a Beatles lyric. She may reappear again, but we won’t say for sure, or when, or why, because we’re coy like that.
Anyway, Q feels that Margo has maybe left hidden clues (like a spray-painted message in a boarded-up mini-mall) as to her whereabouts. He starts Sherlocking about with a little help from the nerds-kateers.
Eventually, all for one and one for all, plus Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair), plus Margo’s former bestie—the other prettiest girl in school, Lacey Pemberton (Halston Sage)—pile into Q’s minivan for a 23-hour road trip to New York state.
Why? Because Q’s clues have him convinced that Margo’s hiding out up there, in a “paper town,” which is a term for sneaky, made-up towns created by mapmakers to catch copycat competitor cartographers.
Will they find her? Not telling. Will Q come to some revelations about the fact that maybe getting paid that much attention, by that much of a high school babe, resulted in that much obsessive, foolhardy decision-making?
Will they get to the prom on time? Will nutty Ben have a shot at misunderstood smarty-pants-hottie Lacey (“I have a brain! I’m going to Dartmouth!”)?
So How’s the Acting?
The acting’s fine, overall. However, British fashion-model-of-the-year, award-winning Cara Delevingne as Margo delivers a flawless American accent with apparent ease. She’s a natural talent who also beatboxes and plays guitar and drums. That much talent and that much looks—she’ll stick around a while.
As for the rest, it’s a tad bland. There are no iconic high school characters like Slater and Wooderson from “Dazed and Confused,” John Milner and Toad of “American Grafitti,” Spicoli from “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” Cher (“Clueless”), or of course—Ferris Bueller.
There’s a lot of par for the course locker-jabber, mean girl-sneer, jock-sneer, unmentionable teen-male fantasizing, and, as mentioned, fairly funny, not-really-geek talk from not-exactly-geeks. And this watering down of the true geek-ethos really should be nipped in the bud. What if everyone became cool? There would be no conflict. We can’t have that.
Your best high school movies have iconic soundtracks with nostalgia-generating hits of the day. None of that going on here, with Son Lux’s (Ryan Lott) meh-score. Best song: “Stacks,” by Bon Iver.
All in All
What is it about American high school movies? The great ones nail the essence of high school so well, we remember just why it is we have those recurring fantasies.
What is that essence of high school? It’s the formative years, and the stakes are high on everything. So much is still new, and yet the nostalgia of the lost magic of childhood has already set in—and the bittersweetness of that is excruciating. “Paper Towns” does, in the end, bring the heartache of fading good times.
High school movies remind us that we tend to take everything for granted; one minute we’re being born, and the next minute we’re in our graves. Ferris Bueller said it best: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” See “Paper Towns” as a reminder not to miss your life.
Director: Jake Schreier
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Halston Sage, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono
Running Time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Release Date: July 24
3 stars out of 5