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Non-Review Review: Paper Towns

There is an irony at the heart of Paper Towns. In many ways, it is a typical teenage coming of age fantasy. Quentin is approaching the end of his high school life, which has been spent buried in books. One night, the girl next door sneaks into his bedroom and takes him on a whirlwind adventure through the Orlando nightlife. Reconnecting with the enigmatic Margo for the first time since childhood, old feelings are reignited; Quentin allows himself to feel excited and alive. However, the next morning, Margo is gone.

As Quentin begins a bizarre treasure hunt to track her down, he finds himself caught up in a dynamic adventure. Deciphering a series of clues that offer an indication of where Margo might have gone, Quentin discovers that there is more to life than his own narrow experiences to date. The pursuit of Margo allows Quentin to come out of his shell. “You’re cute when you’re confident,” Margo assures him at one point in the film. “Less so when you’re not.” Inevitably, Quentin learns that he has to venture outside of his shell and push past his comfort zone.

Dream girl...

Dream girl…

This is a classic teen movie trope, reinforcing the sense that key to adolescent (and even adult) fulfilment is comfort in your own skin. It’s a nice idea, because it is undoubtedly true. However, Paper Towns is not particularly convincing in its thesis statement. For a film about the need to be comfortable with your teenage self, Paper Towns tries very hard. There is a crispness and efficiency to Paper Towns that belies its big central idea, a sense that the film is urging its central character to try something it is not comfortable enough to do on its own terms.

The result is a film that is charming and witty on its own terms, but which occasionally feels just as illusory as any of the fictitious locales to which the title alludes.

Shopping for trouble...

Shopping for trouble…

Teen movies are very difficult to pitch. It is very hard to construct a movie that talks convincingly to kids caught in that fragile stage between childhood and adulthood. After all, teenage life unfolds within an eight-year time-frame, give or take. By the time a writer or a director is in a position to make a movie about teenage life, they are likely to be eight or ten years removed from the experience. Watching a teenage movie can often feel like an exercise in anthropology, as if trying to understand a perspective that is at once universal and unique.

(After all, actual adolescence is radically different from the “arrested adolescence” that seems to have taken root in popular culture. Much digital ink has been spent on how cinema has fixated on male (and occasionally female) characters whose mental ages have frozen at twenty-one. While such opinion pieces inevitably throw around the word “adolescent” to refer to characters like those featured in Bad Neighbours, the mindset it more that of a college fratboy than a genuine high-schooler.)

Tub time...

Tub time…

Capturing adolescence on film is difficult to maintain on even the most basic of levels. It is hard to maintain a consistent frame of reference with a demographic that changes every eight years or so. Paper Towns makes a valiant effort, but it occasionally strains under the pressure. At one point, the teenage characters sing the theme song to Pokémon to help give them confidence; the television show went off the air in November 2002, which would seem to put it outside the window of childhood viewing for these kids.

At other points, Paper Towns is a little too forceful. There is a lot of nice clever dialogue, but it occasionally feels a little too clever for its own good. “Detroitish” is a pretty wry adjective, but it is a little too knowing and arch. The film maintains a frantic energy that sustains it across its runtime, perhaps capturing the sheer momentum of teenage life. However, it all feels a little too crisp and smooth, as if the characters could do well to slow down and talk to one another instead of moving on quickly to the next thing.

Radar love...

Radar love…

Paper Towns plays like a fever dream of teenage life filtered through a romantic lens, something to which the script shrewdly and repeatedly alludes. Quentin wakes up to wonder if his mad night with Margo just his imagination wandering. Margo seems to spend more of the film as a fantastical construct than as a flesh-and-blood character. The film’s climax explores the idea that Quentin (and the film) have not been entirely honest about the reality of the situation, that they have concocted an elaborate fiction that provides a narrative arc to a more complicated reality.

Oddly enough for a teenage adventure film, the most obvious point of comparison for Paper Towns is Gone Girl. Both are essentially stories about romantic fictions constructed to shroud the complexities of interpersonal relationships. Like Amy Dunne, Margo cultivates the narrative that has been woven around her. Both women find themselves ultimately confined by the impossible expectations that such a narrative creates. Naturally, Amy reacts in a rather more aggressive manner than Margo, but there is considerable thematic overlap.

Snap chat...

Snap chat…

Paper Towns has no shortage of clever ideas, but there is something that feels rather forced about the execution. The film is careful enough to openly and repeatedly question Margo at various points, warning the audience not to buy wholeheartedly into the construct that Quentin has built from scraps of information and a fleeting encounter. At the same time, Paper Towns commits to its own mythologising of adolescence. Paper Towns is wry and witty, but it only offers fleeting glimpses of self-awareness.

Quentin’s romantic adventure question is just as forced and fabricated as the one he build for Margo; only the film never asks the audience to question its own story. The film suggests that people are mysteries, even to themselves; the joy lies in discovery. Still, Margo seems to be the only character to whom Paper Towns offers this complexity. The arcs of the five other major characters are all clearly mapped, with the primary single male supporting character hooking up with the primary female supporting character for reasons entirely of plot convenience.

And like that... she was gone...

And like that… she was gone…

In a film about finding the comfort in living your own life, Paper Towns tries too hard. Early in the film, Margo accuses Orlando of being a “paper town.” Perhaps Paper Towns is a paper film.

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