John Green is a person whose fame is peculiar, in that most people probably haven’t heard of him, and those that have either really like him or really don’t. In either case, this is probably because John Green has a habit of sharing information or talking about things that make people uncomfortable. He does this because, as far as I can tell, he really cares about the world he lives in. By all accounts, this extends to his books, and thus the question arises, does this extend to films adapted from those books? I can only speak for Paper Towns, but I’m happy to say that despite a few issues of flow, it is a very genuine and pointed film.
Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a big ol’ dork getting ready to graduate high school with his equally dorky buddies Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith). Quentin has spent all of grade school nursing a crush on the popular and mysterious Margo (Cara Delevingne, who will soon play opposite Will Smith and Margot Robbie in the upcoming WB/DC Comics film Suicide Squad). He states that he believes everyone gets one miracle, and that living across the street from Margo was his. When Margo suddenly goes missing, she leaves behind little clues to let Quentin know where she is; when he decides to follow her, Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage) insists on joining him. His friends do too, with Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) also putting her foot down and coming along for the ride.
The premise is one to be skeptical of. It sounds exactly like your typical manic pixie dream girl love story, which we at FRC are not a fan of. They tend to perpetuate an extremely toxic idea about relationships in general, and women’s roles in them in particular. For those unaware, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is the female love interest in a heterosexual love story told from the male’s perspective, whose purpose is to teach and enlighten the man, serving his interests and expediting his growth while having no apparent inner life of her own. She exists for the purpose of pushing along his arc, and is otherwise woefully underdeveloped. This kind of narrative is troublesome, because it requires women to place themselves in the role of somebody who prioritizes the enlightenment of another over pursuing creativity and growth of her own; it’s just the “she’s my muse!” thing wrought in modern terms over indie music. It mythologizes women in a way that is harmful to everyone who internalizes this idea in their daydreams, and also makes for piss-poor storytelling.
Fortunately for everyone, Paper Towns is a direct response to how harmful and stupid this idea is, with John Green himself stating in reference to it, “I do not know how I could have been less ambiguous about this without calling the novel The Patriarchal Lie of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl Must Be Stabbed in the Heart and Killed.” A mild spoiler: in the film’s climax, when Quentin finally catches up to Margo and confesses his love, she frowns at him awkwardly and explains, more or less, that she left the town to find herself and left him clues so he would know she was okay, not as an invitation to join her in eternal adventure. She fled to a Paper Town because she doesn’t know who she is; “A Paper Town for a paper girl.” How can he love her if she doesn’t even know who she is? Quentin then goes on to explicitly state that Margo wasn’t a mystery or a miracle, but just a girl. A person. Paper Towns even features two other couples that get together because the boys in them recognize the girls as human beings first, in direct and unambiguous contrast with Quentin’s failure to do so.
This is a teen movie about a boy growing up who learns a lesson, and does not get the girl in the end as his reward. Instead, he gets to be a better person who better appreciates his friends. This seems like a small thing, almost an obvious thing, but in comparison to much of the media that is aimed at a similar audience, it’s a distinct and much-needed improvement. This is doing what great storytelling should do: conveying a point about what it is to be human, no matter how small. It’s not purely about entertaining you or making you feel good; it’s about the world you live in and how to live in that world.
Which isn’t to say that Paper Towns isn’t entertaining; the movie is very funny. Where you might expect the usual shoegazing drama, angst, and mild humor so prevalent in indie romance, instead you get hijinks and friends doing stupid things together just for fun. These kids endlessly talk over their social plights and concerns and worries for the future, but do so without ever being too serious about it. In other words, these characters are exactly teenagers. They are well-meaning, a little selfish, and spend the bulk of their time trying to navigate their changing lives. It’s both honest and fun, which is not something you get without being genuine.
Not only does Paper Towns accurately reflect what it is to be a dorky teenager, but it also crushes – in a kind, gentle sort of way – the toxic myth of the manic pixie dream girl. It is fun and it is funny, its soundtrack is on point, and the only real complaint is that, being based on a book, it is sometimes paced like a book. As teen movies go, you’d be hard pressed to find one more perfectly suited for its audience.Liked This? Share It!