Paper Towns: An exercise in managing expectations

The author may be the same, but the latest film adaptation of a John Green novel — “Paper Towns” — isn’t anything like last year’s breakout hit “The Fault in Our Stars,” nor is it meant to be.

Early in the film, Cara Delevingne’s Margo Roth Spiegelman laments how Orlando, where the movie is set, is full of paper people living in paper houses, and that “everything’s uglier up close.”

It’s a warning about placing undue expectations on a person because you only see them from a distance and your mind perceives them to be something that they’re not simply based on a projection in your mind of what you might want that person to be. It’s actually an interesting concept to remember when watching “Paper Towns” — since audiences will likely project expectations on the film based off “The Fault in Our Stars” when this movie couldn’t be further from it, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

While “Paper Towns” might not have the best screenplay, there’s something refreshing in the reality-based coming-of-age tale. High school dramedies like this are nothing new, but it’s nice every once in a blue moon when what audiences expect to find differs from what they ultimately get.

Filled with relative newcomers, the movie is flush with pleasant surprises in its acting performances, most notably the average Joe charm of lead actor Nat Wolff, who flourishes in a role that would have been perfect for John Cusack from his “Say Anything” and “Better Off Dead” in the 1980s.

Pairing him with the rag tag duo of Austin Abrams’ socially awkward, yet romantically confident Ben and Justice Smith’s committed Radar gives this upstart film a “Goonies”-esque vibe while the trio try to solve the mystery that is Margot’s disappearance.

Delevingne is compelling in her own right, with a cool, effortless demeanor that helps to envelope viewers in the mystery to come. She’s also the perfect choice for the part, as the relative mystery of who Cara Delevingne is as an actress is just as unknown as who her character truly is. No real inferences can be made off of her casting, whereas audiences may enter the film with preconceived notions about the character if it were played by a better known actress generally typecast into specific roles.

The fact that Delevingne hasn’t been in anything of note is actually one of her biggest assets in “Paper Towns,” giving Wolff — and by extension, the audience — something to chase after.

Thanks to director Jake Schreier, “Paper Towns” has an independent film feel in spite of its big budget and feels more akin to last summer’s special indie dramedies “The Spectacular Now” and “The Way Way Back” than “The Fault in Our Stars.” 

In essence, “Paper Towns” is a film about managing expectations between what we perceive we want versus what is actually there. Audience members who find themselves quickly relating to Quentin in his quest for Margo will ultimately find satisfaction, though many will still leave disappointed that “Paper Towns” wasn’t what they thought it was.

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