From the outset, Paper Towns just looks like another boring, predictable teenage film about a White unpopular high school boy and his infatuation with his beautiful White popular girl neighbour. But instead the film handles the main themes and common clichés well, with depth and humour throughout, making the film an above average teen rom com.
The story opens with a young Quentin (Nat Wolff), nicknamed “Q”, talking, via voiceover, about how everyone in life gets a miracle: whether it be the lottery or other incredible circumstances. However, he claims that his “miracle” is a person.
Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), a pretty new girl in town moves across the street from him, and they immediately become friends. However, they soon grow apart and lose touch for a number of years, though he is still completely in love with her and admires her from far away.
Things change once night when Margo surprisingly climbs through his window and asks for his help in a revenge plot on her cheating boyfriend, her cheating friend and all friends who knew about it. Q takes this opportunity to impress Margo and believes that she has finally fallen in love with him, though they actually know nothing about each other. But more than anything, he finds himself more enamoured with her because she makes him feel alive and makes him live in the moment.
However, the next day, Margo disappears, and Q takes it upon himself to find her, believing that she has left a trail of clues for look for her and is waiting to be found. Q is then joined by his best friends Ben and Radar, before all of them embark on a road trip with one of Margo’s friends, Lacey, and Radar’s girlfriend Angela, so Q can win back the girl of his dreams.
In any other teen romance/comedy/drama, you could expect Q to find Margo, ready with open arms to live the rest of their lives together in love. But Paper Towns is unique because of how it doesn’t buy into the clichés and takes a critical look at the, as original novel writer John Green calls it, “the patriarchal lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl”.
It’s a film that positions the male protagonist as a quiet, shy and unpopular student and puts the female love interest as an unconventional, basket-case well out of his league. It’s not a new concept, but instead of making Margo adhere to the tropes of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the movie showcases everything wrong with it. So many teenage films revolve around the main characters obsession with an idealised version of their love interest, butPaper Towns instead takes the realistic world.
On a broader scale, the film explores what it’s like to build someone up in the head of a character without actually knowing them. It exposes the mythology of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl in particular, a common archetype in many films, but significantly in teenage films.
The film makes the point that it is not reasonable or good to idealise any individual as a solution to your own problems. As Q says himself, he considers Margo “his miracle”, reducing her to an imaginary figure that she will never live up to. He idolises her and essentially believes that she is the necessary ingredient for him to finally embrace his freedom and be adventurous. But this notion rejects that Margo has her own purpose or reason other than to teach Q to embrace life and be his leader.
It’s incredibly refreshing to include such a complex and deep character as Margo, and John Green should be applauded for writing Paper Towns in such a way. The title alone has parallels with exploring the character of Margo. Paper towns are fictional places created by cartographers to ensure there is no copyright infringement, and Margo uses the metaphor to explain herself – someone who is misinterpreted, plain and non-existent, but labeled and represented a particular way.
The addition of such a multifaceted female character is something that is rejuvenating to romantic comedies. (500) Days of Summer attempted to take a critical look at female stereotypes but was received more like a “selfish bitch” character than anything else. Instead Margo, at her much younger age than Summer, is only concerned with progressing her own life and pushing her own agenda.
The well-thought out screenplay, realistic characters and perfectly paced story, make it enjoyable for viewers of all genres. Paper Towns isn’t a film that aims to lecture or show you the way you are meant to lead your life, but it’s about time that we see something new.