When Paper Towns was published in 2008, a tattered copy of Looking for Alaska had just about finished its circulation through my middle school friends. We all loved it — or at least pretended to love it so as not to disturb the fragile pop-culture dependent foundation our relationship relied on — and we all decided John Green was “oh so gritty” and that we should pitch in for a hardback copy of Towns. I read it. It was enjoyable. Seven years later I watched the film version. The film hits predictably tender and funny notes, but missing was something central to the story that kept me on edge: a payoff to the people-as-paper metaphor that the film constantly reiterates but does not, in fact, flesh out successfully.
Starring Nat Wolff as Q (The Fault in Our Star‘s Issac) and model-turned-actress Cara Delevingne as Margo Roth Speigelman, Paper Towns focuses on Q’s infatuation and subsequent quest to find Margo in all her manic-pixie etherealness. Q’s life is infrequently but potently punctuated by Margo’s adventurous and mysterious persona, until one night close to high school graduation she recruits him as her driver as she leaves dead fish in closets and spray paints her initials everywhere in town as a (fairly ambitious, though pretty convoluted) act of revenge. The night ends with a declaration of her own personal thesis: that their ordinary suburban neighborhood — basically everything and everyone — is superficial and fleeting. The next day Margo is gone and Q is convinced she spent her last night in town with him for a reason.
Those predicting the plot from the poster for the movie may be surprised by Delevingne‘s brief presence in the first half of the film, but it is really in her absence that the film’s three best performances come around. Austin Abrams and Justice Smith as Q’s two best friends Ben and Radar are almost relaxing to watch with Wolff, with their rapport feeling intimate (they encourage each other to take risks by speaking in clearly practiced old-timey accents) while also indicating their less-than-cool status in the High School Social Structure (“It’s not a party if there’s a tuba there” says Radar about the less than stellar “parties” they’ve attended). Their nerd credibility becomes more charming when, in order to psych each other up to explore an abandoned shop where Margo may have left a clue for Q, they break into the Pokemon theme song, jumping amongst clouds of dust and broken snow globes before going further into the questionably dangerous depths of the building. It is in these moments that these characters absolve themselves from the artificial, “papery” quality that Margo criticizes. They are — if I should be so bold as the movie itself is with metaphors based on office supplies — the crisp bubble-wrap of people. They are enigmatic together, and the film quietly succeeds in making their friendship entertaining and surprisingly tender.
Halston Sage’s performance is also admirable as Margo’s former friend Lacey. She is genuinely scared for Margo and makes Q’s strange obsession with finding her even more inappropriate. Lacey is actually her friend, and Q is just looking for clues that Margo leaves for no apparent reason other than ones he makes up himself. Lacey’s growing romance with Ben is predictable but far more endearing than any romantic sentiments Q has for Margo, which makes the ending of the film somewhat unbearable.
Instead of following Ben, Radar and Lacey head back home from upstate New York where Margo is, and the movie instead focuses on Q finally interacting with real Margo and not just the clues she left behind. This is about the time when my scratching of the theater cushion became incessant. The book made Margo out to be some normal girl, just running away with no substantial feeling for Q or her old life. My fears were momentarily assuaged when remembering that The Message of the book, explained by the author himself, was how Margo was a person, not paper, not a collection of cool things that she’d done. Instead, the movie veered against this, and Margo and Q share a moment that decidedly makes her the person that Q wants her to be.
Ultimately, Paper Towns pushes its thesis of the superficiality of reputation and infatuation only as far as the genre of Summer Teen Movie can allow. Margo never really falls off the pedestal Q puts her on, and the movie doesn’t ever try to tip her over. Instead this John Green vehicle keeps saying how she’s not paper (Is she bubble wrap? A packing peanut, perhaps?) but the metaphor isn’t enough. The film has its few shining moments of friendship between actors who actually look like they could be eighteen-year-olds, but other than that it does, fittingly enough, fall a bit flat.
Photo courtesy of Fox Movies.