‘Paper Towns’ is a charming take on young adult drama

By Nathan Frontiero

Official Paper Towns Movie Facebook Page
Official Paper Towns Movie Facebook Page

“Paper Towns” hooked me in with a sound effect. In one of the film’s earliest scenes, Quentin (Nat Wolff) assists his friend Margo (Cara Delevingne) with a series of late night hijinks. They hop in their getaway vehicle – his mom’s Honda minivan – and he punches the gas. The tires squeal, burning rubber like a muscle car in “The Fast and the Furious,” and the teens rush off into the night. The moment is over the top and yet still feels honest.

Schreier takes an earnest and playful approach to his subject matter, which is a good thing, since it’s easy to callously judge “Paper Towns” against the young adult checklist. All the hallmarks are there: high school graduation, senior prom, a milquetoast male lead and his enigmatic-but-cool female neighbor. And of course he’s been madly in love with her since their childhood, even though he barely knows her.

These familiar genre elements and the narrative’s central drama tie into one larger cultural critique. “Paper Towns” is built on the subversion of a sexist convention in fiction and film: the “manic pixie dream girl,” a thinly written woman who exists only to help the male lead self-actualize. The MPDG is so abhorred that Nathan Rabin, who gave the character type a name in a 2007 essay about “Elizabethtown,” wrote a Salon article in which he apologized for coining the term. And John Green described the book in a Tumblr post as an effort “devoted [entirely] to destroying the lie” that the MPDG perpetuates.

This isn’t clear at first. Quentin describes the “miracle” of living so close to Margo Roth Spiegelman in an opening voiceover. Pining after her seems to be the only thing that gives him purpose. At one point in their aforementioned night of mischief, Q says “I can feel my heart beating in my chest,” and Margo answers, “That’s how you know you’re having fun.” Here the film seems to reinforce rather than deconstruct the cliché – the mysterious free spirited girl shows the bland, love-struck boy how to live life. It’s only when Margo disappears – after that evening, the teens’ only substantial interaction since their childhood – that the film starts to examine the issues with this trope.

Margo seems to have left behind clues hinting at her whereabouts. Q assumes that she wants him to follow the breadcrumbs. He and his friends buy into this hero narrative that he needs to find Margo because he loves her and because she probably loves him back. It takes most of the ensuing journey for these boys to pull their heads out of their assumptions.

The film’s satisfying payoff arrives when Q realizes he has projected his own fantasy onto Margo and disregarded her agency. “What a treacherous thing it is to believe that a person is more than a person,” he remarks, realizing that Margo isn’t his miracle. Whoever she really is, “that’s her story to tell,” not his.

The movie’s overall thesis makes some of its tonal inconsistencies appear purposeful. A cringe-worthy exchange between Margo and Q – she says “Everything’s ugly up close,” and he answers, “Not you” – reads like subtle satire. And a half-baked reform subplot involving Q and Margo’s respective friends offers a slight foil to Q’s more substantial character development. Ben’s (Austin Abrams) lust for Lacey gives way to fumbling respect. She’s smart and Dartmouth-bound but only gets recognized for her looks. They bond when Ben reconciles with her by saying she’s “not just beautiful, she’s cool.”

I can’t give the movie or its source too much credit. John Green – author of the novel on which the film is based – and director Jack Schreier’s efforts to take down a sexist fantasy still center men’s perspectives over women’s. “Paper Towns” doesn’t spotlight Margo or let us see her independence and empowerment through her eyes. Instead, the film follows Quentin (who goes by “Q”) and his friends, and waits for them to realize that disregarding women’s autonomy is dehumanizing. The film’s good intentions aren’t quite enough to make up for that limitation.

It also seems that none of “Paper Towns” would happen if these kids didn’t have cash to burn. Q bribes Margo’s sister with a $20 bill on multiple occasions so he can scour Margo’s room for clues. And Margo manages to get herself far away from suburban Orlando without any trouble. The story’s core rests on the fact that she has the means to simply skip town whenever she wants. Her mother tells Q that Margo will return either when “she’s bored or out of money.” It’s a blunt reading, through which the narrative loses all stakes, but one that the film passively asks for. The movie presents a rather square case of upper middle class problems, and that strips some heft from its overall message.

“Paper Towns” works best when it indulges the schmaltzy tendencies of young adult fare. The film gets a giddy boost of energy with every alt-pop beat of its soundtrack and even the most overwrought moments – a sad scene set to Bon Iver comes to mind – always feel sincere. The performances are heartfelt and understated and allow the film to relish in both commentary and silliness. “Paper Towns” sometimes feels ridiculous, but its charm is infectious.

Nathan Frontiero can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @NathanFrontiero.