For most of us, there is The One. (And I don't mean that in a "Matrix"-y way, nerds.) You fall completely under his or her alluring spell, and even if there's no fairy tale ending for the two of you, your time in their orbit inspired you to be daring and be vulnerable and be better... often even extraordinary. Fiction has abbreviated this very real being into the tiresome Manic Pixie Dream Person, a living library of quirks whose sole purpose seems to be a protagonist's salvation. But rarely is this contrived agent of change allowed the depths of their earthbound counterparts, because that would screw the illusion. "Paper Towns," the satisfying screen version of John Green's popular Young Adult novel, challenges that Manic Pixie Dream myth through a wise and beautifully-acted film: part mystery, part road movie, and all coming-of-age tale.
Nat Wolff (he was Gus's blind buddy in the other Green adaptation, "The Fault in Our Stars") plays Quentin, our hero and narrator, and he informs us at the outset that his longtime neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), is his miracle. As high school draws to a close, however, contact between the reserved Q and the popular, gorgeous Margo has dwindled since their respective social standings anchor opposite ends of the cool spectrum. But late one evening the adventurous Margo climbs in his window and enlists the wary Q's help as a getaway driver while she exacts inventive revenge on a few jerks who wronged her. Their exhilarating mischief, in concert with that soul-baring time of night, leads to a kind of détente, an acknowledgment of their shared history and a hope that their friendship can continue. By the next day, though, Margo is gone.
It's not the first time the restless Margo has lit out, but Q's reignited infatuation -- a feeling he's convinced is love -- drives him to try and find her, and the fact that Margo, as usual, has left a series of clues only encourages the search. Q is aided by his two equally geeky friends, apple-cheeked horndog Ben (Austin Abrams) and sensible Radar (Justice Smith), and it's not long before the three model students are skipping class and letting the suburban Orlando scavenger hunt blossom into a full-blown road trip ... on the strict condition they can get back in time for prom. And as with any proper cinematic journey, milestones are achieved, strong bonds are made, stronger bonds are tested, and lessons are learned, by both the actual travelers and us, the audience, who occasionally need to be re-educated as to what constitutes a happily-ever-after.
Adapted for the screen by Michael Weber and Scott Neustadter (they also wrote the screenplay for the very similar "500 Days of Summer"), "Paper Towns" is blessed with a smart director in Jake Schreier ("Robot & Frank"), who does little more than point the camera at his appealing cast. British supermodel Delevingne is totally believable as a Florida teen, and her teasing chemistry with Wolff sells their deep attachment. Besides the third-act breakdown, Wolff isn't asked to do much yet he's oddly compelling, likely due to a normalcy in which we can see ourselves reflected. But the movie might belong to Justice Smith as Radar, a nice kid who won't let his cute girlfriend come over because his parents are angling for the world's largest collection of black Santas. Smith's line deliveries are both hilarious and startlingly organic; he's a major find.
What makes "Paper Towns" (the literal title refers to make-believe places on a map that only exist to counter copyright infringement) especially interesting, though, is that it's very nearly a bait-and-switch. You think you're in for another quiet-boy-meets-quirky-girl drama, but instead you're treated to a funny, wistful look at friendship set during the waning days of high school, a bittersweet procession of last times, and an exciting parade of firsts. Endings dovetail with beginnings in the Margo and Q thread, which finds Margo ultimately verbalizing all the thoughts I've silently screamed at the screen during nearly every Cameron Crowe flick, where an enchanting, complicated young woman is expected to save some lost young man from himself. No one never seems to consider that the dream girl might be harboring a few dreams of her own.