Next-door neighbors Quenten and Margo were best friends as children but at the start of their final year of high school they haven’t spoken in nine years. Things changed with the arrival of puberty–Quenten developed into a shy honor student who spends all his time with buddies Ben and Radar talking about girls while eating lunch in the bandroom. Margo, on the other hand, blossoms into the most popular girl in high school, the kind of girl who jumps into the back of a waiting convertible packed with beautiful people then flips her hair with smug satisfaction as the car races off into the night.
But Margo is a complex person. She reads Walt Whitman and makes fevered annotations in the text; she spends time travelling with a circus; she expresses scorn and contempt for the emptiness of the upper-middle-class life held out to her generation as the ultimate brass ring. Early in the film she runs away from home–for the fifth time. Her parents are distraught but resigned. “She’s eighteen, let her do what she wants,” her mother laments. Rumors run through the school about the exciting adventures Margo must be having. Childhood friend Quenten, however, decides to do something no one else–not even Margo’s parents–bother to do. He decides to look for her.
Paper Towns is the story of his journey, and what he finds out about Margo, and about himself along the way.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by John Green, Paper Towns is a surprisingly thoughtful film. I was expecting a fairly formulaic teenage love story, but got something quite different. Granted, the film makes use of many of the standard tropes and archetypes of the suburban coming-of-age narrative–we have the clueless parents, the obnoxious teachers, the house party, the angst about the prom–but the film did something that few films of this genre manage to do. It made me ask myself what perspective the screenwriters wanted me to take towards its characters.
Quenten (played with nerdy charisma by Nat Wolff) is the film’s narrative center, and it is through his eyes that we initially come to view Margo (played with capable self-absorption by Cara Delevingne) as a beautiful, inspiring, free spirit. After an early sequence of scenes in which she coaxes Quenten into a series of antisocial (and largely illegal) acts, Margo breathlessly tells Quenten, “The way you feel right now is the way you should feel all the time.” Perhaps it was just my middle-aged parental sensibilities but I found myself thinking, “Dude, if you keep doing the kind of stuff you did just now you’ll end up in prison.” Interestingly, Quenten has no father–not even mentioned in absentia–and his mother looks barely older than him.
Paper towns, apparently, are fictitious towns mapmakers place in their creations to catch copyright infringement. It is Margo who uses the term “paper town” as a metaphor for an empty, meaningless existence, but the cartographic concept also drives the plot forward, as Quenten becomes convinced that Margo is leaving clues for him and wants him to come find her in an actual paper town called Argo, New York. Taking a group of his friends in his mother’s minivan, and using the seemingly-unlimited financial resources that characters in these kind of films inevitably have, he drives from Florida to New York to find Margo. Whether Quenten’s quest has more in common with Don Quixote than Don Juan is the question that the film very cleverly dangles before us, and finally answers in a denouement that I will not reveal, but that assured me of one important thing: the film makers knew what they were doing here. It is hardly a coincidence that Quenten travels to a paper town named Argo in search of a paper girl named Margo.
The film is far from perfect. One weakness is that it wants us to invest emotional energy in Quenten’s feelings for Margo, yet Margo herself is hardly in the film. Instead we find ourself staring at Quenten and wondering what exactly he sees in her, and having to intellectualize his feelings because the film fails to inspire them in us. Watching the film I often found myself wishing I had first read the novel, not because I wanted to build on what the film had told me but because I wasn’t sure I understood the film’s perspective in the first place. It is generally a sign of weakness in an adapted screenplay if the viewing experience raises questions that can only be answered by “reading the book.” A film must stand alone.
By the end of the film, however, I was quite certain of two things: (1) The screenwriters are well aware that Margo is not an heroic adventurer but a troubled narcissist, and (2) Quenten still doesn’t quite understand this. Considering how intensely teenagers tend to fall in love, perhaps that is how it should be. Even if Quenten doesn’t fully realize it by the end of the film, the audience has learned something important about our tendency to fall in love with our perceptions of people rather than the people themselves, and the way that delighting in the happiness of a friend can be as rewarding and fulfilling as any romance.