We’ve all had that one person whom we loved, or thought we loved, or obsessed over, or stalked, or for whom we sacrificed goats, and who wasn’t ultimately worthy of our affections. You know the ones: the people whose pedestals rise so high that they can only be properly viewed from space. Those magical individuals who inspired us to change our personality from top to bottom, just on the off chance that they might like us better that way, and for whom we occasionally still search online, even though they have long since changed their name and filed a restraining order, presumably because they’re playing “hard to get.”
For half an hour, Paper Towns celebrates one of these people to such an extent that you want to walk right up to the screen and backhand it. This ur example of the so-called “manic pixie dream girl,” a possibly unstable but very attractive young woman who pulls a bored and boring protagonist out of their doldrums, is named Margo, played here by Cara Delevingne. She yanks a hapless and infatuated Quentin (Nat Wolff) out of his bedroom at night, emotionally manipulates him into stealing his mother’s car and committing multiple felonies, all the while waxing so rhapsodic about the phoniness of everyday life that even Holden Caulfield would start fantasizing about a house in the suburbs and 2.5 kids as a form of emergency psychological relief.
Naturally, Quentin decides he’s just had the best night of his life and that Margo is now probably his girlfriend or something, so when she doesn’t show up for school the next day he finds himself a little bit perplexed. As the days continue to unfold like indecisive origami he becomes convinced that Margo skipped town and left him a series of incredibly elaborate clues to help him find her, so that they can finally live happily ever after, presumably ripping off convenience stores for cash as she repeatedly rebuffs his sexual advances.
If Paper Towns, based on the novel by The Fault in Our Stars author John Green, had proceeded all the way down this particular sidewalk I would have been forced to clothesline it. Fortunately (and “boo” to Apple Pages for only letting me italicize “fortunately” just once), the story winds up encircling a delightful cast of supporting characters who fascinated by Margo’s bullshit. They tag along Quentin’s increasingly desperate quest for their own perfectly reasonable reasons, and emerge victorious over an otherwise simple and didactic tale about learning how people aren’t, like, perfect, man.
Quentin’s best friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith) are such rich dramatic creations, even at their most mundane, that one prays – frequently – that Paper Towns had been made entirely about them instead. They capture a consistently rewarding tone of mild, self-aware teen awkwardness that is endearing to an extreme without seeming twee. Halston Sage plays Lacey, a former friend of Margo’s for whom life seems simple enough from the outside but who is pointedly plagued by existential frustration. That they all go along with Quentin’s unstable obsessions out of sheer friendship, and that they eventually wind up getting pissed the hell off at him, makes them seem all the more realistic and lovable.
By the end, Paper Towns redeems itself. It turns out the point was actually pretty healthy all along, although I’m not entirely confident that the film’s underlying critique of Moby Dick holds water. Jake Schreier directs a movie with an artificial plot but plonks it down into a comfortably recognizable environment that offers up kind hearts, good laughs, and a conclusion that almost makes you glad you sat through one of the most insufferable first acts in movie history. Paper Towns was going somewhere all along. You may just want to go with it.