(2015) Drama (20th Century Fox) Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith, Halston Sage, Jaz Sinclair, Cara Buono, Josiah Cerio, Hannah Allgood, Meg Crosbie, Griffin Freeman, Caitlin Carver, RJ Shearer, Susan Macke Miller, Tom Hillmann, Stevie Ray Dallimore, Jay Duplass, Kendall McIntyre, Emma O’Laughlin, Yossie Mulyadi. Directed by Jake Schreier
Figuring out who we are is a lifelong pursuit. Some of us learn early on and either go through a life of self-hatred or one of self-satisfaction, or at least self-acceptance. For others, we search and search, grabbing at maddening clues that seem to lead us somewhere but ultimately lead us back to ourselves. For some of us, the search is what makes us who we are.
Quentin (Wolff) is a senior in high school. He is one of those guys who everyone knows but nobody particularly cares one way or the other about him other than his two best friends, Radar (Smith) and Ben (Abrams). Quentin has his whole life planned out; he’s been accepted at Duke, intends to go to their prestigious medical school, become a doctor of oncology and meet someone special and have lots of babies and have a great life. The end.
Except he’s already met someone special, as far as he’s concerned. Her name is Margo Roth-Spiegelman (Delevingne) and she lives right across the street. She’s lived there ever since they were children and Quentin has had a crush on her from the first day he saw her. They couldn’t be more opposites; Quentin has a plan, tends to play things safe and wants his life on the straight and narrow. She, on the other hand, is adventurous, loves a good mystery and isn’t afraid to live her life outside the box.
That’s why they inevitably drift apart during high school. Oddly, she becomes part of the in crowd, the girlfriend of Jase (Freeman), a jock who has been cheating on her with her best friend Becca (Carver). Disillusioned, she shows up at Quentin’s window one night, needing a getaway driver. That’s because she wants to get revenge on those who betrayed her as well as those who knew about the betrayal and didn’t tell her, which would include her other best friend Lacey (Sage) and Lacey’s boyfriend (and Jase’s best friend) Chuck (Shearer).
The vengeance is complicated and bittersweet. Quentin is at first a reluctant participant, not wanting to get caught and have his carefully laid plans ruined, but as the night goes on he finds himself feeling alive like he never has before. He feels that old connection with Margo and it seems as if that feeling is reciprocated as she wonders in a sort of melancholy way how things might have turned out if she hadn’t abandoned him for the in crowd and stayed with him.
The next day, Margo doesn’t show up for school. Nor the next and the next. The police become involved but Margo’s mom (Miller) throws up her hands in disgust. This isn’t the first time Margo has run away from home and she’ll come back when she gets bored or runs out of money. She declines to file a missing persons report, earning her a parent of the year award from an incredulous Quentin.
He resolves to find her himself and of course his trusted friends are all in. Ben, in particular wants the opportunity to hang out with Lacey, who it turns out didn’t know what Jase was up to and is as concerned as to her whereabouts as Quentin is.
Margo has always been wont to leaving clues and this is no exception. Bribing her little sister Ruthie (Crosbie) to let her examine Margo’s room, Quentin discovers a volume of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass which seems to indicate her state of mine. He also finds a scrap of paper with an address of what turns out to be an abandoned tourist memorabilia shop in a dicey part of town, which will lead him and his friends on the adventure of a lifetime.
This is based on the young adult book of the same name by John Green (who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars) which should have given it a built-in audience but the early box office returns have been less spectacular than the other film. Not bad, but not spectacular. The movie will make a tidy profit, but not nine figures like the first film did.
Part of the issue with the movie is that the leads are really not easy. Quentin is as white bread as they come, a little bit boring even. His obsession with Margo flies in the face of his carefully prepared life, and of logic – admittedly however teen hormones trump logic every time. Margo on the other hand is as self-centered a lead as you’ll see in the movies. Everything she does is about her and about her needs, and as it turns out, nobody really notices except for the astute Ben who tells Lacey “She doesn’t deserve a friend like you” and he’s right. She’s the sort that an adult can see right through, from the pretentious use of capital letters and her aphorisms which sound a lot wiser than they are. If Quentin is the average high school student, Margo is the high school student that doesn’t exist except in the mind of John Green. Which of course means she probably does.
The writers Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber have an ear for dialogue, even more so than Diablo Cody and Kevin Smith who both write excellent dialogue but in a more clever vein. These kids talk the way kids really speak and that genuineness is part of the movie’s highlights. For me – and I admit this is strictly my own viewpoint – I found it refreshing that this movie, set in my home town of Orlando, portrays Orlando as a city where people actually live, even though Margo despises it so. She probably never hung out at the Enzian Theater. She’d have had a different opinion.
I would go so far as to say that this captures the bittersweet elements of one’s senior year in high school. It is a time of transition without those who are living it knowing it. Only towards the last weeks we realize that we are hanging out at the burger place for the last time, eating pancakes at our best friend’s house for the last time, going to science lab for the last time. Suddenly we realize we are being pushed out into adulthood and as eager as we are to grow up, a part of us is kicking and screaming.
The best part of the movie is the relationship between Quentin, Radar and Ben which is surprising since the movie is ostensibly about Quentin and Margo, but the bonds between the three boys becoming men are so genuine and so real; to their credit, the filmmakers realize that (and I think Green probably does as well) and at the end of the day, when Quentin is given a choice, he chooses to return home to his friends, even though after the summer they’ll all go their separate ways. It is a bittersweet ending, but the right one.
I have always thought that people latch onto a movie because they see a little bit of themselves in the characters, but I no longer believe that is true. I think we latch onto a movie because we see ourselves the way we want to be in the characters, and surprisingly, the character I saw myself wanting to be the most was Radar, whose loyalty to his girlfriend Angela (Sinclair) is sweet and admirable in many ways; I wish I had that kind of commitment when I was his age. I like to think I would have. In any case, while this movie isn’t going to set teen hearts aflutter, it might appeal to jaded adults like myself more than you might expect. Who would have thought that.
REASONS TO GO: Gets the bittersweet senior year nicely. The bonds between the guys are genuine.
REASONS TO STAY: A mite too pretentious for its own good. Margo is a little too self-centered to identify with.
FAMILY VALUES: Some mildly bad language, teen drinking and partying, partial nudity and sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ansel Elgort makes a cameo as a gas station convenience store clerk.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/4/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Say Anything
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10