When Paper Towns came out many people flocked to the theaters with a pack of tissues in hand expecting to see a movie similar to The Fault in Our Stars, but this film is not a tear-jerking teenage melodrama quite like Green’s previous work. Behind the plot of a missing girl and a boy’s determination to find her is a genuine true-to-life story about a group of kids who don’t have it all figured out, but they sure as hell are trying. After selling millions of copies, the novel debuted as #5 on The New York Times Bestsellers List. But did the film reach its full potential?
A paper town is not a real place but rather a nonexistent location put on a map by its creator to protect against copyright infringement – if the town is found on another map they would know it was copied. In the author’s note of the novel John Green says it is the idea of “creating something that other people want to make real,” which largely sums up leading (though absent for most of the film) lady Margo Roth Spiegelman’s driving force of motivation in life. Margo (played by model and St. Vincent’s girlfriend, Cara Delevingne) is the It-Girl at Jefferson High School, with a hundred stories winding the rumor mill about her many adventures on the East Coast. As well as being the most popular girl at school, she also lives across the street from awkward and straight-edged Quentin (Nat Wolff), the film's leading man. Quentin’s initial monologue explains the many miracles of life and his belief that everyone is entitled to at least one of these miracles during their lifetime. Endearingly, Quentin considers living near Margo to be his.
The two were childhood friends before their lives took different paths and drifted away from each other, so when Margo crawls through his bedroom window a few weeks before graduation and convinces him to join her for a night of revenge, he can hardly refuse her persistent charms. She persuades him to perform epic pranks including vandalism and breaking and entering – basically the most eventful night young Quentin has ever had. “That’s the way you should feel your whole life!” Margo lectures Quentin. His head spinning with excitement, he goes to bed unaware that his childhood crush would go missing the very next day, gone to exile herself in an attempt to make her very own paper town real.
Aided with the clues Margo left behind, he sets out on an cross-country adventure with his best friends, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), traveling 1200-miles to upstate new york to find Margo and her new, fictional place of residence, risking the possibility of missing prom.
Prom? What started out as a promising tale of self-discovery disappointed me when they made the stakes so mundanely low, ultimately condemning Paper Towns to be a typical teen flick. It contains all the elements of an average teen movie: Kids sneaking out, cool kids conspiring with nerds, a complete lack of adult supervision, a wild party, and, of course, a Senior Prom in jeopardy. With the only real risk being the possibility of missing prom as opposed to graduation itself as it was in the original text, screenplay adaptors Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber did not give Paper Towns much room to grow.
Another example of exaggerated low-stakes is the overly dramatic scene during the road trip at the gas station. With only six minutes to fill the car with gas, buy some food and grab a change of clothes, the trio of teens, now joined by Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) and Margo’s best friend Lacey (Halston Sage), sprint out the convenience store and pile into the car with Quentin doing a cute little spin over the hood. I understand the need to represent a time crunch, but the scene comes off as being overemphasized.
Though not solely the fault of Shreier who does try to take advantage of slower scenes in between for character development, the cast still feels paper-thin. Quentin starts out as a work-obsessed geek who is loyal to rules and restrictions and ends the movie with hope for the future, marveling in the revelation that Margo was never more than a girl (“What a treacherous thing it is to believe a person is more than a person”). This is a revelation he would not have come to terms with if not for Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Margo Roth Spiegelman.
According to film critic Nathan Rabin, a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG) is a cute and quirky, female romantic lead “that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Here lies the neat and tidy description of Margo’s role in Paper Towns. The problem with characters like Margo is that she only exists as a means to aid the young white male on his own road to discovery. Paper Towns’ story arc inched along until it eventually dropped off at the discovery of Margo, and seeing as we never find out what she intends to do with her life (let alone where she lives), one can’t help but feel the filmmakers simply used the trope of a confused young girl as an easy plot-device. But hey, as Margo said, “Everything is uglier up close.”
One can appreciate Paper Towns with nostalgia for high school days, but with that being said, I would have enjoyed the film a lot more if I was still fifteen years old. By leaving out so much of the novel, Shreier’s adaptation failed to fully realize the inspiring, coming-of-age story John Green had mapped out.