When it comes to horror films, the subtle subversion of a trope is a good start to make me appreciate your film a little more. Maybe you didn’t stick the landing, but at least you did something new and didn’t back off from it. Horror isn’t the only genre where this rule applies, though. Romantic comedies, spy films, political thrillers, and so on are all welcome to changing elements of their formula up just a little bit. When it comes to Paper Towns, it attempts the minute formula change to a rather run-of-the-mill coming of age story. In its attempt to do so, it also backs itself into a corner where it becomes forced to acknowledge and then dismiss its one interesting hook.
Quentin (Nat Wolff) has been infatuated with Margo (Cara Delevingne) since she moved in next door. As kids, they roamed the neighborhood getting up to all the mischief you can imagine. But as time went on, Margo became distant and fell in line with circles of friends which Quentin never felt he belonged. Until one fateful night when Margo asks Quentin for help and they have the time of their lives, vandalizing people and their belongings, all in the name of justice. The next morning, she has disappeared and Quentin gathers his friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) to try and find where she went.
I wrote that with slight tinges of jest, because few things come across more in this film than its ludicrous moments. Yes, Quentin is madly in love with this girl, and when she disappears, it makes sense that he might become curious as to where she went. No one really questions why she left, and instead they just create myths about where she went and what she’s doing there. Motivation isn’t really explained much beyond the concept of love, which further agitates when the film decides to try its hand at what should have been a relatively satisfying ending twist.
Margo comes off the entire film as a burgeoning sociopath. She essentially pulls a “Gone Girl” on Quentin and makes him have to hunt her down. Keep in mind, this is the fifth time she has run away from home and left clues behind as to where she was going. However, this is only the first time that Quentin believes he has been deemed worthy of finding her. But let’s just cut right to the chase: Margo is a monster.
*Spoilers incoming for the next paragraph*
The big reveal is that Margo was actually leaving clues behind so that Quentin knew she was okay. When she “selected” someone to play her little game of hide-and-seek, she was excluding others from knowing she was alright. She didn’t want to be found, but she also never wanted people to worry. Yet she constructs a series of clues hidden in obscure places all throughout their town, when any sane person would just call home and say “Yes Mom, I’m fine. Tell Quentin not to worry”. But this isn’t a sane person, this is a person who blames others for creating a myth about her when she spends her days cultivating a persona made up of literary references and the kind of philosophy a young adult novelist would believe a teenager would say. Oh, and then Quentin’s very brief moment of despair is erased and replaced with thankfulness that she left those clues because he was able to drag his friends on a road trip and create a divide between them as well. But even that divide is forgotten by the very end of the film.
*End of Spoilers*
I could go into the many reasons I hate this film, but there were brief, fleeting moments where I enjoyed the interactions between characters. The core group of Quentin’s friends are not the worst, but often have the kind of cheesy dialogue that you’re unsure whether a highschooler would say nowadays, or just a lazy writer. The underlying plot point which everyone is concerned with except Quentin is that prom is on its way and Ben still doesn’t have a date. The girl he ends up falling for actually seems to have no chemistry at all with him, even by the end of the film. In fact, she seems more in love with Quentin, which makes it all the more frustrating because it is clear the writers do not see what the characters are doing.
Paper Towns is a film more concerned with trying to do something fresh and exciting, but without the courage to follow through. An ending that hinted at other characters recognizing Margo’s destructive nature isn’t sufficient when it is immediately followed by no one learning anything. Yes, Quentin finally feels ready to move on from high school, but Margo ends up being likely to grow up to be the new Amy Dunne. Sacrificing your character development in a coming-of-age movie is about the worst crime you could commit, and yet here we are, watching a decent, kind-hearted character thank the manipulator for manipulating him.