Judging from the hit movie version of John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars” and Jake Schreier’s adaptation of Green’s 2008 YA novel “Paper Towns,” it would seem likely that he didn’t date much as a teenager. At least not happily. In “Fault” a guy with cancer falls for a girl with terminal cancer. In “Paper,” a boy is besotted by a girl who might be just an image in his head.
Maybe that’s what happens when you experience your life in voiceover, as do the protagonists in both films. Even literate voiceovers (this one isn’t so much) telegraph that we’re in for safe if dark ironies and rueful platitudes that inevitably resolve in some glib life lesson.
The actors burdened with this material, however, are not so glib. At times they break out of stereotype and tap into those magic adolescent moments like the ecstasy of finding out the person you have a crush on might actually like you, or the satisfying cynicism of thinking you are the first one to disdain conformity, or the delight and tragedy of leaving the sameness of high school and your bevy of clever friends for college. Or somewhere . . .
Stuck with commentary duties, Nat Wolff (the friend with the glass eye in “Fault”) otherwise makes a credible case for Quentin, or “Q,” the smitten, romantic, uncool high school loser. He has something about him of the young Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” his look puckish and enigmatic, especially when not talking.
Quentin first beholds his “miracle” –Margo (played as a teen by model Cara Delevingne) – when they’re both kids and she moves in next door and gives him the stinky eye. In slow motion. He falls in love.
Margo spends a lot of time in slow motion, actually, as miracles tend to do. But after hitting it off in grade school, they grow apart. By senior year they are strangers, though Quentin holds an idealized image of her in her mind. Then one night she climbs into his bedroom window and takes him on what he regards as a liberating adventure, but others might diagnose as the deranged acts of a sociopathic narcissist.
Then she disappears, leaving a trail of clues. Here’s where Green the literary artist/pop culturist perks up: The clues are drawn from Walt Whitman, a vinyl album cover, and a 1984 road map. Quentin enlists his pals – among them uptight black kid Ben (Austin Abrams, by the end a dryly funny personality) and puerile Radar (Justice Smith, whose crassness turns sweet) – on a quest that is a cross between a pointless scavenger hunt and “The Wizard of Oz.” It is contrived and probably meaningless, but it brings these kids to life.
Will miracles never cease? Alas, they do. Pausing pregnantly between clauses to add to their trite profundity, Quentin recites the moral of the story, and it’s as phony as the towns of the title.