Paper Towns (2015): teenage troubles of white suburbans and the (de)construction of Manic Pixie Dream Girl

Whatever happened to American teenagers? Where are all the fun, full of life, sometimes mean and self-obsessed, rebellious, anarchistic adolescents? Where are the teenagers of Dazed and Confused, The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Animal House? Where are the teenagers who question authority, live their lives to the fullest and enjoy getting into trouble? These days of teenage angst seem to be over, since we now live in an era of John Green’s well-read, well-behaved, nerdy high school youngsters.

His latest creation, Paper Towns, is focused on a group of unbelievably eloquent and articulate teenagers, at the centre of which is Quentin (played by Nat Wolff, probably best known for his role in Palo Alto). He is an introverted, nerdy kind of guy who gets along with his parents, has good grades and has his whole life, his whole future precisely planned out. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have anything against introverted nerds – hell, I am one of them – but there is nothing, absolutely nothing about this guy to like. He doesn’t even have any interests in his life – with the exception of obsessing over the girl living next door, the mysterious Margo (Cara Delevingne), who hasn’t talked to him in 9 years. He skulks in his room, watches her from his window (creepy much?) and fantasizes about what’s she’s like.

However, where this story really falls flat is with the character of Margo. For she is yet another portrayal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (a term smartly coined by film critic Nathan Rabin in 2005, that describes a “bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imagination of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures”). And while I get that Green’s true intention was to decipher this magical creature, I don’t believe he was anywhere near successful at this – on the contrary, he produced the very thing he intended to criticize.

When after 9 years of quiet obsession over the girl next door, the wild, mysterious, adventurous, popular Margo shows on Quentin’s bedroom window and demands that he joins her on her silly and vengeful adventure, he probably for the first time ever lets his guard down and lives a little (just as the protagonist should when he encounters the Manic Pixie Girl). But just as he lets a little excitement in his life, a bit of fun and rebelliousness, Margo disappears. And because he is as self-centred as they come, he starts to believe that her spending time with him on the night of her disappearance was some kind of message. She wants him to find her! He becomes obsessed with this idea – so much that he is suddenly prepared to skip school, make a road trip across the country and leaving his future plans, his routine behind. Because the love of his life, his miracle (as he calls her) disappeared – and it’s on him, a guy, to save her.

However, the thing that happens after he finds her is quite possibly the only thing in this film that made some sense – for she is genuinely surprised, a bit creeped out even, that he tracked her down. And she is even more taken aback when he decides to profess his love to her. “But you don’t even know me! I don’t even know me…” Which leads our dear Quentin to a completely mind-blowing revelation:

The fundamental mistake I had always made—and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make—was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.

I mean, really? To end a story with such a message is just pathetic – if anything, the story should begin with it. Do we really need a whole book (and film) to explain to teenagers that girls are not some magical creatures? That they’re no less complex, no less troubled, no less awkward than guys? And if we really need books and movies that decipher our magical characteristics, why not tell the story from Margo’s perspective? Why do we need to watch a lifeless teenager obsess over the troubled popular girl if we could instead be introduced to her troubles up-close? If we could be let into her world, get introduced to her problems, frustrations, her aspirations?

Her character is by far the most interesting in this film, mostly due to the fact that she’s the only one who possesses at least a bit of teenage angst, who rebels against her parents and against the boring, privileged suburban life they live, who doesn’t yet knows who she is or who she wants to become, who struggles to get her life on tracks and who is also fiercely independent and isn’t afraid to take action when someone hurts her feelings. She is how I remember being a teenager was – but she hardly gets any screen time. And when she finally reappears and gets her big finale Green decides to ruin the whole edgy character he created – and with it, his whole deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Girl. Why does she, after she is (rightfully!) creeped out by Quentin’s stalker tendencies and after she ridicules him for the fact that he believes he loves a girl he barely knows, asks him to stay with her? Why does she kisses him, why does she wants her happy ending?

Even though Cara Delevingne does a surprisingly good job at portraying Margo, such a small role just isn’t enough to carry a whole movie through. And while I otherwise like Wolff, he really hasn’t had enough to work with here, since his role was sort of a male equivalent to Kristen Stewart’s Bella Swan. But what bothered me the most was a poorly constructed story that would probably work much better with Margo at the centre.

The Basics:
Directed by: Jake Schreier
Written by: Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (adaptation of John Green’s novel)
Starring: Nat Wolff, Cara Delevingne, Austin Abrams, Justice Smith
Running Time: 109 minutes
Year: 2015
Rating: 2