When books contain main characters who are teenagers and plots that deal with teenage issues, they are labeled as young adult books. With just one label, they are able to attract their target readers, but when they are translated into movies, drawing in that teen crowd becomes complicated. From the cinematography to the way the dialogue is presented, each individual step must be relatable to a younger crowd without belittling the intelligence of the audience. With the recent release of John Green’s sophomore film Paper Towns, the creators try to engage the audience by having an intimate narrator and simple cinematography, and sometimes it works, but other times the audience becomes detached from the story.
The writers and director made the choice to have the main character, Q, present the story via voice over. This technique is often used in teen movies because it gives them a diary feel. It allows the audience to see the world from Q’s point of view so that they relate and bond with him almost immediately. When the audience is introduced to his love interest Margo, they can feel his love for her because at that point they are inside his head. Therefore, when he puts her on a pedestal, so does the audience. That kicks off one of the biggest themes of the movie: seeing people as more than people. Towards the end, when the problem of this theme is revealed, the teenage audience is able to feel as if they are learning the lesson along side Q. Therefore, although voice over can be cheesy, it works to draw in this movie’s target audience.
David Lanzenberg, the director of photography, keeps everything simple so that Paper Towns remains relatable. There are no overly scenic shots, the lighting never romanticizes the shots, and the camera work never takes away from the story. It all seems real, as if we are sitting in the room with the characters watching their conversations or actions play out. He also saves the glamour shots for Margo. There are many moments when she is shown flipping her hair in slow motion, which makes the teenage crowd idealize her and therefore, once again, relate to what Q is feeling. For the most part, this type of cinematography is a positive point for the film, but when Q spends a night pulling pranks with Margo, the shots fail to raise the anxiety of the scenes. The lighting is executed well, with shadows being expertly cast, but there needs to be more jump cuts and rapid camera movements. This would allow the audience to stay in tune with Q’s mentality since he’s claiming to be scared throughout the night. Instead, it feels mundane, thus the audience becomes misaligned with him and his fear of getting caught. That misalignment continues until that connection can be reaffirmed.
When Q sees something in Margo in a scene that we as viewers do not see, another disalignment occurs. The moment that Q and Margo have at the top of a tall building overlooking their town is supposed to give us hope that Margo reciprocates Q’s feelings, but it’s clear to the viewer that Margo’s head is somewhere else at the time. Even if she didn’t have any romantic feelings towards him at that point, the movie is setup so that we are seeing things from Q’s perspective and what Q saw was her reciprocating his feelings. Therefore, we as viewers should have seen a stronger sense of that as well. That would have pushed us into the second act of the movie with more determination for Q to find her after she leaves town. Instead, that earnestness is lost and with it the ability to care about him finding her. This could have easily been fixed if they chose to include a few close ups of Q and Margo looking longingly into each other’s eyes while they danced at the top of the building, but the shot we saw of them dancing was farther away and cast in shadows. Maybe that was because it played into the theme that everything is prettier from a distance, but Q had not learned that lesson yet so the audience was not in that mindset.
The characters are strong and the story is interesting, but the execution needed to shift depending on the individual scene. Teens are a complicated demographic and every aspect of the teenage-centered film needs to be catered towards them. During moments when the movie loses its relatability, whether it be due to the lack of anxiety during the prank scenes or the lack of belief when it comes to Margo’s feelings, it loses its fan base. Even with these falters, the way that the audience becomes connected with Q and his point of view via voice over is extremely effective and truly leads to a great payoff in the end.