“I’m a big believer in random capitalization.”
Don’t groan yet. That’s Margot Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne) telling it like she sees it. She has and enjoys her quirks and unique interests (Woody Guthrie, that’s insane! Rock climbing? Maybe she doesn’t Instagram it too much as to not seem superficial!). She has an almost Holden Caufield-esque view of the world. Everything’s just a “paper town” in her eyes, a phony place. Everything’s just so fake, and she’s above it. And why wouldn’t she be the center of attention, the object of so many teenagers’ attentions? She’s the hipper-than-thou cool kid, so high-minded in her disdain. Orlando is a stink town, and she aims to cleanse her soul of its corporate, bourgeois, whatever.
This is not meant to deride the plight of what’s clearly a real kind of unhappiness, mind you. It’s just this: what teenager doesn’t feel isolated or like their current situation is the end of the world? John Hughes made a mint extrapolating the extreme despair of youth in popular fashion, but at least he committed. Margot wants to delete friends based on opening passages from Walt Whitman? And she dazzles all who cross her path? Get a grip, Margot. Paper Towns seems so ready to believe that she’s the real deal, a special fairy child, and yet her story never truly illustrates what makes her so rare. She comes across like a familiar, angsty teen. Get in line, kid, things don’t settle till at least … never.
Adapted from John Green’s book, Paper Towns romanticizes a lost-and-found teenage daydream that comes across as a little insincere and more than a bit tone deaf. It’s a convoluted riff on seizing the day and other poster slogans from your Senior AP English classroom, looking to dispel its own self-made mythos around high school.
Margot is the it-girl of her school, a self-made ingénue, a legend in her own atmosphere. She sports Chucks and says opaque things. And as is most relevant to Paper Towns, she’s the object of Quentin’s (Nat Wolff) affections. See if this sounds familiar: Quentin’s the grade-grubber, the perfect student who has his whole life (med school) all planned out and has yet to experience the joys of living life. And this being a teen movie, he’s been harboring a crush on Margot in the worst way since he was little. So naturally, Quentin retreated to scholarly pursuits and social reclusion. He doesn’t dance, drink, or know how to be spontaneous. But things will change on one fateful night for Quentin, and his life will never be the same. That’s how these stories always go.
Margot creeps through Quentin’s bedroom window, claiming she needs a wheelman. She’s planning to destroy her ex-friendships with a series of pranks, and she needs an innocent like Quentin to help. Quentin, being a gawky teenage boy totally incapable of eye contact/audible speech/anything but smirking (an honest plus for the film), is enraptured by Margot. She is his crush, his Moby Dick, ultimately his Gone Girl. After a night of silly, vindictive, and just plain rude jokes, Margot vanishes. Quentin obsesses over her, pondering what could have happened.
From there, it’s a mystery wrapped in a teen comedy locked inside a Gap ad, as Quentin and his pallies go on a hunt for the elusive Margot and get away with all kinds of grounding-worthy behavior. Again, this is a teen fantasy. Paper Towns ruminates a lot about youth, but deep down it’s about scoring, vengeance, and the selfish adolescent need to feel secure. Quentin may opine, but deep down he wants carnal things and to actualize the drooling dreams he has about Margot. Margot is just an easy way for these kids to emblemize their hopes and lusts.
Margot’s grand story is beset by such a lack of proper characterization. The film talks a big game. It’s a story about the lives of teens, their dreams, their worries, and their last chances to truly feel special and happy, to make it all mean something. Saying “HAGS” in the yearbook is lame, so take a minivan road trip and be your true self, Paper Towns says. Easier said than done.
You’ll also notice that many of these paragraphs begin with “Margot,” and that’s because this movie is obsessed with all things “Margot! Margot! Margot!” Margot and what she means to these kids. Margot and how she represents the idealized fantasies of ending high school, not sure what life means or where it’s going. Add a handful of awkward monologues about change that you’ve likely heard from a drunk kid at someone’s house party, and you’ll be ready for Paper Towns’ rabble. Margot as a metaphor for our mixed-up “what ifs” of yesteryear is a sharp idea. And yet the film takes that idea and misuses it as a sort of wish fulfillment exercise, about grabbing random opportunities that no awkward teen would ever capitalize upon. It’s a hard test. Few ever pass. And that’s Paper Towns’ biggest issue.
Going back to Margot’s affinity for writing in MiXeD LETters: Is it random capitalization as a means of asserting oneself, or arbitrarily obvious behavioral traits for yet another teen movie?