Nov 12, 2015

Teen Movie Thursday: Paper Towns and Angus

Paper Towns
Dir: Jake Schrier
Based on the novel by John Green. That set alarm bells ringing. I'm not a great fiction reader these days, so my only experience of Green's work had been with the adaptation of his novel The Fault In Our Stars which, even among the generous recent crop of bad movies based on young adult novels, stood out as a special kind of awful. Was it just a bad adaptation?  John Green didn't seem to think so, nor did his fans, and that rather put me off Paper Towns

What drew me to the film was the casting of Cara Delevinge. I wouldn't have called myself a fan, but Delevinge is a presence you can't easily avoid if you spend your life online and I confess I find her intriguing; a quirkily beautiful woman, seemingly with a similarly offbeat personality. On screen I first saw her in a small role in Michael Winterbottom's The Face of an Angel; an appallingly bad film, but one that demonstrated that at the very least Delevinge has presence to burn; the kind of screen charisma you can't teach. I still wasn't expecting much from Paper Towns, but I was hoping her presence might mitigate against its problems, even if I hated the rest of it as much as The Fault In Our Stars.

Paper Towns is a pretty conventional coming of age story. Q (Nat Wolff) has been in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman (Delevinge) since her family moved in across the road when they were seven. Now in the last weeks of their senior year, the two haven't spoken for years, until one night Margo asks Q to drive her around while she plays a series of revenge pranks on her cheating boyfriend. After this one exciting night, Margo vanishes but Q, determined to find her, pieces together clues to where she is and embarks on a roadtrip with his friends Ben and Radar (Austin Abrams, Justice Smith) as well as Radar's girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and Margo's former best friend Lacey (Halston Sage).

The film is at its best in the early going. Margo and Q's night of pranks has a real charge to it, you get caught up in the excitement both of breaking the rules and of living with Q in that moment when the one person you desperately want to notice you finally does. The characterisation isn't terribly deep, but you understand why, beyond her beauty, Q - who lives largely by the rules - would find Margo seductive and want to go along with her. There is a sense of possibility, almost of magic, to the whole twenty minute sequence. It captures one of those rare moments when, in the middle of something happening, you suddenly become aware that this is a moment you're going to remember forever.

The reason this part of the film works so well is not that it offers a breathtakingly original insight into what it's depicting. It's Cara Delevinge. That same quality that makes her intriguing as a model comes through in Margo. In her work and in her interviews, Delevinge comes across as fun, spontaneous and off the wall, as someone it would be both entertaining and exciting to be around. It would be silly to pretend that her beauty, offbeat though it is, isn't part of the allure she has, but it's much more than that.  The unpredictability of both character and actress lends an electricity to every scene in this first act, be it the pranks or the slower and more tender moments, such as when she and Q dance to muzak in a deserted office building. 

When Margo disappears from the film, Delevinge largely does too, but only in presence. She may not appear in the film's middle hour, but her charisma is still the driving force of it. For it to work at all you have to believe that Q would need closure, that he would consider it worth the bother to find Margo, that she would linger that long in his mind. Green and screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H Weber give her little personality beyond her quirkiness and spontaneity, so it is purely Delevinge's work that powers this, and she is interesting enough - an individual and compelling enough presence - to carry it off.

The film's second and third acts are less compelling than its opening, but that's not to say they aren't fun. Nat Wolff, Austin Abrams and Justice Smith are lumbered with stock characters (especially Abrams as the horny kid who can't get a prom date), but they're pretty good in their parts, creating a believable group of friends. Neustadter and Weber give them some amusing dialogue - Radar's relationship with his girlfriend is especially strong in this respect - and again there is an energy to the dynamic between them that helps power the film along.

There are some standout scenes along the way, the obligatory party scene is good, particularly in a downbeat conversation between Q and Lacey, which is well written in that it feels like several broadly similar conversations I had at parties when I was a teenager. Things tick up a gear once the roadtrip gets going. A funny scene at a gas station injects some comic pace, while a break in the trip after the car spins off the road leads to some character beats between Radar and Angela and  Ben and Lacey, which work better than perhaps they should, given what stock figures they are to this point.

Some have said that the ending is anticlimactic. I didn't find that, in fact it was one of my favourite aspects of the film. The bulk of the film feels a bit of a fairytale, it's saccharine at times, and seems on track to end in the most sugary, cloying, way possible. The fact that it doesn't is commendable. Ultimately it strikes me as a moment that says that people aren't always what we imagine or want them to be, but that that's okay. Green's message; that it's the journey and what sends you on it that matters more than the destination, is rather trite, but it's pretty well delivered here. Paper Towns is no classic, it's not a profound film, nor an original nor even a particularly great one, it coasts by on charm and is powered, like the story itself, by the charismatic wake of Margo and of Cara Delevinge. That's just about enough to make it worth seeking out.

Dir: Patrick Read Johnson
Many high school films co-opt the Pygmalion plot, making over a character who is considered deficient until they fit in.  This is generally laughable, She's All That's attempt to convince us that Rachel Leigh Cook is some sort of social pariah until she removes her glasses being perhaps the most risible example. It can also be uncomfortable, a way to strip a character of what makes them individual (Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club, for instance)  Angus initially seems like it's going to take this route, but it ends up going in a slightly different direction.  

Angus (Charlie Talbert) is a freshman in high school.  He's a fat kid who's good at science, and despite his prowess on the football field he's ridiculed by jock Rick Sanford (A pre-Dawson James Van DerBeek) and his friends.  Angus has been in love with cheerleader Melissa Lefevre (A post Jurassic Park Ariana Richards) since they were eleven, but has never plucked up the courage to speak to her.  As a prank, Rick fixes it so that Angus and Melissa are made King and Queen of the Winter ball.  With the help of his geeky friend Troy (Chris Owen, later American Pie's Shermanator), Angus calls Rick's bluff and goes to the dance.

The metaphor of Angus' science experiment about an alien body being destroyed by a complex system is a little hamfisted, but essentially this is a film about difference being okay and, eventually, about even the people you think are perfect having their problems, which aren't resolved as the credits roll.  That's a different route for an American high school film, and one that speaks more honestly, at least to me, about what that time in your life is like.  The film does take a more familiar turn at its big prom set finale but it has felt pretty honest up to that point, and still takes a few risks both during and after the prom, so you can forgive it that.  

While Angus isn't perfect it gets by on a level of charm that papers over some of the cracks, nowhere is this more true than in Charlie Talbert's lead performance.  Happily, the producers didn't insist on casting either a precocious child actor or a kid who is, for want of a better term, a Hollywood misfit.  Talbert is a big awkward goofball, which is perfect for Angus.  He may not be the world's greatest actor, but he raises his game in scenes with the great George C. Scott (playing his Grandfather) and you buy in to his awkwardness around Ariana Richards.

George C. Scott was an old pro with a 45 year career behind him, and he brings that experience to what could have been a throwaway part. As Angus' grandpa he does the gruff but caring thing we see in so many movie grandparents beautifully. Scott gives us a real sense of a man who wants to seize what time he has left and, as exasperating as he might find a 14 year old, loves his grandson and wants to impart genuinely useful advice. These scenes are some of the best written in the film; touching but never cloying, their advice perhaps obvious, but never tritely expressed.

The other performances are sometimes more spirited than brilliant, but everyone falls well into their role.  After seeing him as the simpering Dawson it might seem an odd fit to see James Van Der Beek as a bully, but he does it well, and seems to have fun, while Chris Owen capably fills the same kind of geeky comic relief part that he's continued to be cast in. 

Ariana Richards quit acting in 2001 and has become a painter instead. That's a bit of a shame.  Her role is initially just to be the girl Angus has a crush on, you certainly believe that; she has an almost stereotypically All American prettiness, and since Angus has never spoken to Melissa, a physical attraction is all we need to buy into. This does mean though that at both a script and an acting level, Melissa has quite a lot of ground to make up as a character in the film's last fifteen minutes. Richards does this capably, the idea of the perfect girl turning out to be not so perfect isn't that original, but the scenes Melissa and Angus share are well written, and Richards and Talbert are both touching in them.

Angus combines funny and moving moments with a deft touch. In one of the film's best scenes Troy dresses a blow up doll as Melissa so Angus can practice his dancing, but when Troy focuses the conversation on Melissa's body, Angus stresses that there's more than that to why he's attracted to her. The visual of Angus making a fool of himself while trying to learn to dance is funny, but what lies behind the scene has some emotional weight to it, this is a pattern that writer Jill Gordon and director Patrick Read Johnson manage to repeat throughout. 

This isn't a film about the good guy waltzing off into the sunset with the girl nor is it a film that rips out your heart and stomps on it.  I like that it's not about Angus becoming a different person so he can fit in, I like that the perfect girl isn't, and if it still finds time to contrive a teen wish fulfillment of giving the bully his comeuppance, that's fine.  

20 years after it was made, Angus looks more and more like a lost minor classic among American teen movies. Made at the tail end of a lull in the genre, when it was trying to find an identity after the end of the 80s cycle, Angus probably got lost in the shuffle after Clueless, which opened 2 months before it in the US, managed to set the template for the rest of the 90s teen movie cycle. This is a film ripe for rediscovery, perhaps someone should try to set up a 21st anniversary screening next year.

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