To hose down the white elephant in the room right off the bat, yes, Paper Towns falls into place as a coming-of-age spin on the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype. But to be more specific, it’s a cautionary byproduct, a variation which revises the object of desire into more of a Manic-Depressive Pixie. And if it still commits the sin of using that well-worn type to illuminate the psychological profile of the straight white cis male protagonist, at least it demonstrates some level of self-awareness about that self-constructed pitfall. Author John Green, of The Fault in Our Stars fame, certainly betrays a lot of sympathy for the geek, but oddly enough, the filmmakers downplay his inherent nobility with seeming inadvertency.
It’s not an easy feat either. The opening sequence is practically a millennial adaptation of the opening credits of The Wonder Years, with “Q” (Nat Wolff) as the Kevin Arnold who falls instantaneously in love with his own Winnie Cooper next door, Margo (Cara Delevingne). This even though she’s the sort of creepy seven-year-old who can walk up to a dead man on the street, see that he’s killed himself with a firearm, and react with the same unflinching, quizzical gaze other kids exhibit when holding a magnifying glass to focus the sun’s rays onto an ant. Puberty strikes and their “best friends” status quo evaporates, but yet Q still carries the torch for her, harder than ever as she ascends to her throne as the queen of edginess on campus while he, with graduation looming, kills lunch hours with his two geek-culture compatriots in the band room. One magical night, Margo appears in Q’s bedroom to lure him into a night spent exacting revenge on the pinhead quarterback who wronged her and the clique of friends she regards as complicit. Q thinks his dreams are about to come true, but the very next day, Margo disappears, leaving a string of clues behind to tease her whereabouts. Q understandably takes this as a sign she’s Nancy Drew looking to make him her own Hardy Boy.
When Paper Towns works, it does so largely because of the inherent bittersweet rush that the last few months of high school hold. Before Margo disappears, she tells her love-struck companion that the mixture of fear and excitement that he felt while they were wrapping her enemies’ cars with cellophane and Nair-ing off dumb jocks’ eyebrows in their sleep is “what you should feel every day for the rest of your life.” Green’s story takes that concept at face value, limiting Q’s enlightenment to his quest to find his soul mate at 18. The filmmakers behind the adaptation, however, are at least wise enough to expand Margo’s sophism so that it reflects the nervous energy of both the characters and the target audience alike, in fits and starts. (The movie revises Q’s posse from jaded misfits to loveable losers with something approaching grace.) Q may initially be too blind to see Margo for the flawed and acceptably unexceptional person she truly is, and when he finally does, he and Paper Towns itself underline the point with so much pompous narration as to shame even the most cliché-ridden valedictorian’s convocation speech.