From the mind that brought you The Fault in Our Stars comes another YA a movie with a twist.
Quentin (Nat Wolff) met Margo (Cara Delevingne) when they were kids. The two shared an adventure together when they found a dead body. However, over the years, the two grew apart. Margo became the aloof, cool girl at school that everyone talked about. Quentin became the nerdy, invisible band kid that geared his whole life toward playing it safe and becoming a doctor one day. Still, Quentin had always been infatuated with Margo but never felt like he would have the chance to get close to her again. With high school coming to an end and his life taking him away from his home town, he had started to resign himself to the idea that he never would get a chance with her.
One night, Margo sneaks into his room and asks for his help getting revenge on her boyfriend. She just found out that he was cheating on her and wanted to get revenge on him, his friend and Lacey (Halston Sage), Margo’s now former best friend. After an adrenaline filled night of revenge pranks, Ben thinks that he and Margo might have actually reconnected. However, the next day, she disappears. After a few days, it’s clear that she’s not coming back anytime soon. However, Margo’s done this before. Whenever she vanishes, she leaves clues about her whereabouts. When Quentin discovers one of these clues pointed at his window, he takes it as a message that Margo wants him to find her.
Along with his two friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) they follow the clues that Margo left behind. Ultimately, Quentin figures out that Margo has gone to a “Paper Town” in New York. Paper Towns are fictional locations on maps that a cartographer puts on a map to keep it from being plagiarized, a fact that Margo shares with Quentin during her last night in town. Quentin convinces Ben and Radar to come with him on a road trip from Orlando to New York to find Margo. They take Lacey and Radar’s girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair) along for the ride. Lacey wants to go to find her best friend and set things right between them and Angela just wants to be included in what Radar is doing. After a bit of an adventure the 5 of them make it to New York but they don’t know exactly where Margo is. With time running out for them to be able to leave and make it to their senior prom, they decide to head back. Quentin stays behind and ends up finding Margo but, things don’t work out as he’d planned. Instead of a romantic reunion, he’s met with some harsh reality. That leaves him to reconsider his own ideas about Margo and what’s actually been important to him all along.
It’s not a stretch to believe that Paper Towns came from the same mind that created The Fault In Our Stars. They both share the concept of taking typical themes found in contemporary “Young Adult” (YA) works and twisting them or flipping them. I’m not sure if all of his work is this way, but these two movies give me the impression that John Green is some kind of YA M. Night Shyamalan (in a good way). The story of Paper Towns is a good one. It’s an alternative take on the concept of idolizing the ideal of a far off person, which is very common in stories about young romance. Normally, a boy or a girl becomes infatuated with someone and goes to great lengths to win them over, despite having no true relationship with that person. As those of us in the real world know, that’s not how things actually work and that’s the path this movie takes.
Quentin plays the role of the love struck protagonist and follows the story almost as if it’s paint by numbers. He has an initial meeting with Margo that leads to the infatuation. That is followed by a significant period of longing at a distance. Then, one day, the far off girl comes back into his life only to turn it upside down. He follows Margo on an adventure that causes him to have to grow in such a way that would make her worthy of him. Then, after going through his journey, he’s united with the girl that he’s longed for all this time. That’s a story that has been told hundreds of times before. Paper Towns then goes one step beyond that and says, “Instead of ending happily ever after, what if that journey doesn’t mean anything?” Quentin gets to the end of the rainbow only to find that there is no pot of gold waiting for him there. Instead, his real reward was that he was traveling over a rainbow in the first place. It’s a nice idea and one that I find personally refreshing in a medium that had been saturated by unrealistic romantic comedies. This movie feels like it tries to introduce a dose of reality into the romantic fiction and, hopefully, to show people that there’s more to enjoy than just getting the girl or guy.
That being said, I found that my biggest problems with the movie stemmed from things that I felt broke the realism of the movie. Obviously, it’s a work of fiction, so I understand that everything doesn’t have to be 100% realistic. Still, I found myself wanting to roll my eyes at some of the dialogue between these alleged high school students. Much like I did when watching TFIOS, I found myself thinking, “I have never met a teenager who’s nearly this elegant or quick witted”. These kids (especially Margo) have a sense of overly important intelligence that borders on pretentiousness. Examples of this are lines like Margo saying that standard capitalization is “unfair to the letters in the middle” or Quentin’s monologue about Margo being his “one miracle”. Instead of being blown away by the profoundness of their words I want to just yell, “You’re in high school! Get over yourself and stop trying to make everything deep”. To the movie’s credit, this kind of dialogue is really only an issue through the first act. Once things start moving along, I felt like the dialogue became more organic.
My biggest problem had to do with the realism of Quentin’s reaction to Margo rejecting him. This part of the story really starts when the gang gets to the paper town and finds no trace of Margo. At this point, Ben and Radar try to convince Quentin that just the fact that they took the road trip and spent the time together was enough. Quentin’s response to that is an emphatic “No” and telling them that without Margo none of this meant anything. This is understandable when you think about Quentin’s behavior throughout the movie. He’s gone way above and beyond what any high school senior would try to do in that situation. He’s broken the law for Margo, put himself in physical jeopardy for her and risked his future for her. After all that, he finally finds her and she turns him away. Granted, it’s not a flat out rejection but it’s still a rejection. I would expect Quentin to be devastated in that moment. Instead, he just looks confused. There’s no anger, no sadness, just an almost immediate acceptance of the idea that the real benefit of the whole trip was spending time with his friends. Which, is the exact thing that his friends told him 15 minutes earlier in the movie. I guess it’s enough that I understand that he came to this realization but the fact that there seemed to be no path from point A to point B in that regard really bothered me.
That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the movie or think that that ruined things for me. What I thought Paper Towns did really well was basically using a bunch of YA tropes/themes as the stories that surrounded Quentin. There was Ben’s story of the awkward kid who ends up with the hot girl. Lacey’s struggle to be more than just an attractive girl as her plastic world starts to fall apart around her. Radar and Angela’s relationship growing. The group’s road trip together to go do something crazy. Any of these stories could be (and have been) made into their own movie. I thought the best message of the movie was that Quentin realized that he was in the middle of all those different stories and all he had to do was pay attention to them. He also learns the dangers of idealizing a person and making them more than they are in your mind. Both of those are great messages to take away from the movie.
As much as any of the messages and themes of the movie, I thought the actors were really what carried it through. There was a great sense of camaraderie mixed with the general awkwardness that comes with being young and mixing different people together. There were a ton of fun moments in the movie that came from that chemistry. A great example was when Ben drunkenly starts singing the Pokemon theme song in order to give the guys courage and they end up dancing around like total spazzes. The road trip scenes, with Radar timing their stop at the gas station, were wonderful and all kinds of fun. I particularly enjoyed Austin Abrams as Ben with Justice Smith playing straight against him. I felt like the comedy of those two, along with Wolff, saved the first act of the movie that threatened to become a little too heavy at some points. Overall, it’s that trio’s energy that makes the movie fun. It’s definitely worth seeing and is a great family-style movie.
I was actually able to record some of my reactions in the theater for this movie. Some of them don’t really fit into my commentary, so I’ll share them here.
- Another character that craps on young people for wanting the “American Dream” of success instead of just willin’ out.
- Teenagers giving other teenagers life advice is almost never a good idea.
- The rumors in this high school are amazing. First Ben’s bloody masturbation rumors and then the multitude of Margot. Does no one ever fact check anything here?
- Margo’s run away 5 TIMES ALREADY!? I’m probably a terrible person for agreeing with her mom that this is no longer a cause for concern.
- I do like Ben, he’s the best part of the first 1.5 acts of the movie.
- What if Quentin had gone to NY when he first suspected it based on the earlier, flimsier evidence.
- Why are they always in the band room? I guess, we’re supposed to assume their band kids, but I don’t remember that being mentioned early on. It’s like it’s their fortress of solitude: “Band room of solitude”.
- Pokemon theme song sing along is the first thing that pops into your head. Adorable. Movie gets much better after that.
- At this point, Quentin is working way harder to put these clues together to find Margo than any high school student should be expected to. So either Margo’s just being mean to him, she thinks he some kind of detective genius, or she doesn’t actually want to be found.
- The timed car stop at the gas station is fun. It also comes with an Ansel Elgort cameo (Gus from TFIOS). Even though that cameo seems confusing and pointless.
- At the moment when Quentin tells Margo he loves her and she rejects him. My genuine reaction was, “Oh this chick is terrible and you, Quentin, are dumb.”
- There is one make step missing here: how does he get to, it’s nothing without Margot, to it read the best few weeks of his life.
- Wait, “We talk everyday”. Her sister has been talking to her every day, but she didn’t think to mention that Quentin and his friends were going all Hardy Boys searching for Margo?
- I guess “Pretty Something” is supposed to be this movie’s “Okay”? Not sure how I feel about that line but I guess that’s the point.