Sunday, September 27, 2015

Paper Towns

A boy pines for the girl next door. He's loved her for years, since a time when they had been co-conspirators. As they grew apart he held on to the world she'd evoked for him.  Now, at the end of their high school lives, he believes that she is somehow magical, the only girl of her kind. He is so in love with her that he believes that they are bound to be together, and he reads her every move as a sign.  She's prone to disappearing, to running away, and when she takes off yet again she leaves him clues.  Though he knows that this is a pattern of hers - her way of reassuring everyone that she is safe-  he interprets every moment, every word, every nuance of their last evening spent together to mean that she wants him to come and find her.

This is Paper Towns - a kind of sentimental teenage Gone Girl in which the parents are impossibly absent, the kids wander untracked, and no one bothers to hunt for a teenage runaway but the crushed-out kid she used to hang with.  It's another in a seemingly endless line of John Green properties appearing at a theater near you, and while it begs a suspension of disbelief unique to teen flicks, we can at least be thankful it is stripped of the gross sentimentality of last year's The Fault in Our Stars. Instead of tearjerking tragedy the focus is twofold: building a mystery and then using it to dismantle the myth of the manic pixie dream girl.    

To those ends, it doesn't matter how sound the logic is or how unlikely and time-crunched our protagonists might be.  It doesn't matter that there's almost no way an entire town would turn away from a missing teenage girl or that her means of revenge is damaging without consequence.  All that matters is that we have a believably lovestruck, self-centered dude and a convincingly quirky young woman.  All that matters is that a lesson is imparted by the end of the film, and the weird space of high school is drawn with the necessary humor, irresponsibility, and surreal touches we need to willingly inhabit it.  In these respects, the film succeeds well enough.  We have a wonderfully funny set of supporting characters in the form of our lead's awkward friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), each of whom steals the story repeatedly and with delightful results.  This is key, because our protagonist, Quentin (Nat Wolff), is a little on the bland side. While he's not the most engaging character to watch, he makes for an understandably hopeless case: he's hung up, a little bit passive, down on himself, and yet strangely self-absorbed enough to believe in some kind of manifest destiny with Margo (Cara Delevingne).  He's a good case study for the claim that relatively shy people usually have the greatest hubris.

By comparison, Margo's on screen actions color her as unpredictable and edgy, though Delevingne's acting renders her relatively plain in her own right.  The film forces Margo to speak with a wisdom and understanding beyond her years, and one that is often not in keeping with her juvenile actions.  What Quentin perceives in her is partially correct: she moves like the manic pixie, she leaves maps and whimsical clues, she pulls large-scale pranks and runs according to her own sense of right and wrong, she makes friends with the night watchmen at buildings she would never otherwise be allowed into and talks, poetically, about the idea of 'paper towns'.  She is touched by a type of loneliness that makes her accessible, and all of this seems intended to show us Margo through Quentin's blurred perception.  The film is plagued by the need to simultaneously present us with the wonder of Margo and the flat facts of Margo, which is to say we're supposed to sit by and kinda want him to find her while also realizing, completely, that she's not the person he wants her to be.  As far as these things go, it's an admirable problem for a teen movie to have, and one that makes Paper Towns - though occasionally frustrating - a far more interesting film to watch and consider than initially anticipated.

As it meanders through its journey, pushing Quentin to the limits of his obsession and refiguring the aimlessness of Margo's running, Paper Towns succeeds in sticking its landing and making its point: people are not who we want them to be.  We cannot make them love us if they do not.  It is not fair to graft our expectations on to others.  Nothing is owed to us.  All of these are solid enough teachings for the film's target audience.  What's tiresome, though, is that they're points the seasoned film-viewer has already seen enacted time and time again, and usually without quite as much direct explanation.  What's even worse is that, of course, to get to the point of being able to make its lesson clear, Margo has already been rendered into a manic pixie dream girl: she has served her purpose, she has changed the male protagonist and served as the film's catalyst for his - not her - grand adventure.

So, the film becomes entertaining enough, but preachy in a way that it can't justify. Even if dudes need to be reminded that girls have their own lives, reasons, issues, and questions, doesn't it miss the point a little bit to have that all packaged up in a movie where the dream girl is a real-life fashion model and her character is just a call to adventure?

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