Paper Girls Review: A Singular, Satisfying Take On Girlhood And Time Travel

People say never to meet your heroes, but what if your hero is yourself? This is the thought exercise that reverberates across time in "Paper Girls," a tremendously heartfelt and funny sci-fi series premiering on Prime Video today. A character-driven series headlined by four talented young leads, "Paper Girls" is the rare comic book adaptation that both honors and improves upon the source material.

The show is written by created and written by Stephany Folsom ("Toy Story 4"), based on Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang's now-complete Image Comics series that began in 2015. It begins in 1988, when four newspaper girls suddenly encounter strange anomalies — people who seem to be from the future, and a sky that turns bright pink. Soon, the group is hurled into the future, where they recruit the help of their future selves to find a way home — and a way to avoid starting an all-out war between two dueling political groups with different ideological opinions on the ethics of time travel.

The Paper Girls are great

The ragtag group of twelve-year-old time travelers includes new girl Erin (Riley Lai Nelet), a second-generation Chinese-American immigrant who's wary about leaving her mom's side to start a job. There's also smart and driven Black girl Tiff (Camryn Jones), sensitive, uncertain Jewish girl KJ (Fina Strazza), and Mac (Sofia Rosinsky) a scrappy, smack-talking tomboy with a bad home life.

Mac is like the Richie Tozier of the group — if the "It" character's foul-mouthed and offensive quips were the obvious result of a rough and tumble upbringing. The TV show never minimizes her flaws, including a sure-to-be-controversial confident bigoted streak early on in the series. Yet Rosinsky is a clear breakout star, seamlessly selling Mac's hidden vulnerability as well as her more bullying tendencies. Every one of the young leads gives fantastic, empathetic performances, carrying both lighthearted and quietly heartbreaking scenes with ease. One of the best directing choices "Paper Girls" makes involves framing important shots on the girls' faces, trusting the actors to convey the truth of their characters' most formative moments.

The show thoughtfully side-steps nostalgia

The series has many strengths, but "Paper Girls" works exceedingly well by stripping away expected aspects of coming-of-age and time-travel stories in order to focus on only what serves its story. The show isn't particularly interested in the mechanics of time travel; it features endearingly uncomplex futuristic tech that's easy to forget about when it's not on screen. "Paper Girls" also doesn't seem concerned with the social artifice that often comes with teen comedies. By making every one of its core characters an outsider from the start, and putting them in a timeline that's entirely about who they'll one day become, "Paper Girls" tells a surprisingly mature story that's free from typical teen drama.

The show is also stunningly anti-nostalgic. It juggles multiple timelines, presenting each one with distinctive, era-specific details, but doesn't waste time fawning over late-80s music or idealizing the days when kids could ride bikes at night. At Comic-Con last week, Vaughan said the series "isn't so much a love letter [to the '80s] as it is a death threat." That's apparent here: "Paper Girls" cares deeply about its girls and their future, but couldn't care less about "remember when?" moments. The show never beats its point home, but its vision of '80s America is a place that's clearly tough for immigrants, people of color, queer people, and the poor. This is a vanishingly rare level of retrospect these days, and it's truly a wonder what a story can accomplish when it isn't constantly stopping to marvel about walkie-talkies.

It's a much-needed inversion of a classic story

Most miraculously, "Paper Girls" is a necessary reframe of the type of "classic" stories we've been force-fed for decades now. It's like if the aching, omniscient epilogue of "Stand By Me" weren't an ending, but a jumping-off point. The series' considerable heart and emotion comes from the unique experience of the girls facing their older selves and trying to understand and accept how they got from point A to point B.

The show subverts classic Stephen King or Steven Spielberg tales (and imitators like "Stranger Things") not just by gender-swapping its group of outsiders, but by giving each character a breadth of experience that goes beyond the few definitive "growing-up" moments we've been trained to hinge our coming-of-age viewing experiences on. This isn't a story about the familiar rites of passage that push a person towards emotional maturity; rather, it's about what it feels like to have that maturity rush up to meet you whether you're ready or not.

"Paper Girls" is also about something pop culture rarely sees fit to discuss without condescension or obfuscation: little girls' dreams. So much of growing up hinges around imagining one's future self, whether that's as a scientist or a mother or a celebrity. By bringing its heroes face to face with versions of themselves that are realistically nuanced and shaped by circumstance, "Paper Girls" becomes the coming-of-age story the former girls of the world deserve, even if — as with the paper girls' future selves — it's one we may never have imagined.

"Paper Girls" is now streaming on Prime Video.