Although it fails at its deconstructionist aims, Paper Towns is still a nice, fun, pleasant movie that’s enjoyable on its own terms.
John Green is like The 1975. By which I mean, he’s a man who likes to claim, both in interviews and his actual writing, that he’s a man who tells honest stories. That he tells real stories about hard truths, that he deconstructs their escapist nature and refuses to sand down the rough edges just to make things more palatable for the reader. It reminds me a lot of the opening to The 1975’s video for “Girls” where they complain that they’re not “a pop band.” Now, in fairness, that could just be them engaging in self-deprecation – they even complain that the video needs to be black-and-white – but everything about them gives off the idea that they are being completely serious, especially when all of their promo shots involve black and white images of them staring pensively into the middle-distance.
But here’s the thing: The 1975 are a pop band and John Green is a guy who peddles escapist sugar-coated teen fiction. No indie band worth their salt writes a song like “Heart Out” – which almost genuinely could have been ripped from a drive-time radio in the 1980s for f*ckssake – and no author who is genuinely trying to tear down the fantasies of escapist fiction writes a story in which everything is peachy keen and great except for the lumbering spectre of cancer hovering over proceedings. John Green’s stories are not some kind of honest truth crusade, and The 1975’s songs aren’t some kind of weird experimental genre-hopping Indie odyssey. And this is all OK, because there’s nothing wrong with escapist teen novels and there’s definitely nothing wrong with pop music, and both parties would be so much better if they just dropped the pretence and admitted that they were the things they claim they aren’t.
To its credit, Paper Towns only fleetingly claims to be something it’s not. Otherwise, for much of the film’s 100-or so minutes, Paper Towns doesn’t even try to rebel against the fact that it is a slightly ridiculous escapist teen dramedy. If The Fault in Our Stars was dishonest about its honesty, then Paper Towns is honest about its dishonesty and I can respect that. As I’ve mentioned before, I really enjoyed The Fault in Our Stars, but its much vaunted “truth” amounted to the occasional blunt moment during its pre-determinedly miserable final third. Paper Towns doesn’t pretend to be some kind of “truth”, presumably due to its central set-up, until the very end, keeping the dissonance from pulling the ride apart at the seams.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Paper Towns follows Quentin (Nat Wolff) who, on the day she moves in across the street from him, is madly in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne). Initially childhood friends, Quentin’s decidedly reserved and non-risk-taking personality contrasts with her free-spirited adventurous self and the two drift apart. Then one night, at the end of their Senior year at High School, Margo sneaks into Q’s bedroom asking for a favour: to accompany her on a night of elaborate revenge against those who have done her wrong. Against his better judgement, he agrees and has the night of his life. Which makes it extra strange for him when she disappears completely the next day. However, because she’s disappeared many times before, Q knows that she’s left clues as to her whereabouts and so the hunt is on to find Margo and bring her home.
With all that said, though, Margo ends up being the weak link in the story. See, although I understand her purpose and how it ends up pushing Q and his friends – Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) – into growing as people and strengthening their bonds before they finally finish High School and likely drift apart, she also has another purpose, that being the vessel for another well-intentioned-but-not-actually-a-deconstruction deconstruction by John Green, and the film’s writers – Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also co-wrote the screenplay for Fault in Our Stars and (500) Days of Summer in case you were wondering if this was a pattern or not. See, the main message of Paper Towns is to learn to not be in love with the idea of somebody. That people are not mysterious forces of nature who are riddles trapped in enigmas, but are instead real people with their own thoughts and feelings and who don’t just exist for your growth and whims.
Now that’s a nice idea, a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl. The problem is that, well, Margo is a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. She is just a vessel for Q’s growth and she herself never really changes or gets much more of a personality besides being that enigmatic mystery. Even during the finale, she still doesn’t really get much of a unique personality, and nor do we get to see things from her viewpoint, both of which undermines the whole “people are complex people, don’t fall in love with the idea of somebody” thing. Margo is nearly saved by a thunderous Cara Delevingne performance – the kind of big-time breakthrough performance where the sheer blunt force of charisma they project during just their first few lines makes one sit up, take notice, and prep for big things in the future – but even with that, she still feels oddly superfluous to Paper Towns as a whole.
Once the film gets shot of Margo – and this is not to say that the revenge spree isn’t fun, or that Q’s awkward interactions with Margo aren’t kinda cute, because it is and they are – the film relaxes into its escapist teen fantasy. Margo’s existence feels like the film is incredibly awkwardly going out of its way to create something bigger, something more momentous or important than it actually is, and that ends up feeling at odds with its more naturalistic escapist aesthetic. This is the kind of film where conflict is minimal, friendships are never really tested, and relationships are incredibly relaxed and free of much conscious effort or strife. You know, everything that real High School isn’t?
And that’s OK. This kind of comforting, escapist storytelling isn’t a bad thing as long as it doesn’t claim to be, or attempt to be whilst still being, otherwise. As long as Margo isn’t around, which is a very long stretch of the movie, Paper Towns doesn’t attempt to be some kind of realistic truth deconstruction or what have you. It relaxes into being this escapist fantasy and I found myself won over by that comforting mood and feel. By being true to itself, it even manages to hit upon some genuine truths thanks to how it writes the trio of Q, Ben, and Radar. Their dialogue, which is never overwritten (unlike Q’s narration but that’s par for the course in this genre), and their interactions – from their corny little in-jokes, to their open admission of wanting sex and girlfriends, to their teasing of one another – honestly reminded me of how some of my friends talked and acted in Secondary School.
That, combined with the genuine chemistry that the guys share, and the fact that most of them do actually look High School age, ended up creating some of the most accurate High Schoolers I’ve seen on film in a long while. I know that sounds weird since I’ve told you that this is an escapist teen fantasy-version of High School, but it’s genuinely how I felt watching the film. Like, there’s a sequence where the boys, one of whom is incredibly drunk, psych themselves up for crawling through a dark hole together by enthusiastically singing the Pokémon theme song. It’s awkward, runs on way too long, and feels a bit forced, but at the same time it’s the most natural thing in the film, and not just because nearly every single real-life person that I’ve interacted with over these last few years has turned out to be really into Pokémon for some reason. It’s like this little glimpse into their world, their relationship, their in-jokes, that helps them feel more dynamic, more fleshed-out.
It’s hard for me to properly explain why all of this is a plus in my book – since all of this sounds kinda awful and inconsequential on paper, and in practice will drive other people up the wall – except for me to tell you that it just is. Watching Paper Towns just kinda perked me up and warmed my heart, especially when the last third just turns into a road movie. Again, its honesty about its dishonesty made everything rather more palatable to me and its lack of self-conscious calling attention to deconstruction that isn’t there allowed me to get lost in the escapism a lot easier. Couple that with enjoyable performances, above-average dialogue, and a strong soundtrack – look, I am a sucker for a great soundtrack in teen movies, I fully own this fact and I won’t apologise for it – and Paper Towns ends up with a winning formula that left me with a nice beaming smile on my face. It’s still flawed, rather inconsequential, and is basically just cinematic comfort food, but sometimes cinematic comfort food is what I want and/or need.
Now if only John Green would just drop the pretension and admit that he makes escapist, slightly schmaltzy teen fantasies, then I could probably find it easier to unabashedly like his work.