Almost a decade ago, film critic Nathan Rabin coined the term Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG for short) to describe female characters that exist in movies solely to move the male protagonist forward on his journey of self-discovery. Rabin wrote a piece last year retracting the term because he saw it used to celebrate those characters instead of critiquing the sexist motives of the writers who created them. In his mind, the term gave a sort of power to the idea of the MPDG that he never intended. There are alternatives, though. For every Sam (Natalie Portman in Garden State) and Claire (Kirsten Dunst in Elizabethtown, the impetus for the term) there is a Clementine (Kate Winslet in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) that subverts the idolization of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl.
Now we have another one.
Paper Towns – based on the young-adult novel by author John Green – deconstructs the character trope even further. High school senior Quentin (Q to his friends) fell in love with Margo Roth Spiegelman the day she moved into the house across the street from him ten years ago. Q believes everyone gets one miracle in life, and he’s convinced Margo is his. By the time the senior prom rolls around, the two have drifted apart, but Q still pines for her in the way only a late adolescent can. Margo surprises Q one night by picking him to be her get-away driver and accomplice in a plan to exact revenge on her cheating boyfriend. The next day the mercurial Margo has vanished – for the fifth time, according to her parents – but Q believes she left clues for him to find her.
Quentin enlists the help of his two closest friends, Ben and Radar, in a fevered search for his lost love. The movie works as a counterpoint to the movie Into the Wild. That movie followed the loner who wanted to get away from it all, with brief segments devoted to his family. Paper Towns focuses almost solely on what happens to the ones left behind. Q desperately wants to make Margo fit the MPDG stereotype, but he’s forced to grow up when he realizes that the girl he likes is a real person with her own goals and desires. Paper Towns isn’t the first movie to consciously create an anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl character, and it isn’t the best. Unfortunately the movie doesn’t follow through completely on the premise, because it falls back on some of the MPDG characteristics it’s trying to refute. It’s a movie with flaws, but it has enough going for it to overcome most of them.
The film works as a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope because Quentin learns a lesson about putting too much of your own expectations on another human being in Margo’s absence. When she is present on screen, though, Margo comes across as a collection of character quirks. Her need to get away from everyone, the clues she leaves behind for those she trusts, and for a teenager, her preternatural understanding of existential angst never mesh to form a believable person. If this weakness in characterization was used as a way to teach Quentin his own self worth, or that love will always win if you are persistent enough, Paper Towns would be a complete failure. The success of the overall message – other people don’t exist solely to accommodate your own needs, is enough to overlook the stock elements of her character.
The problems with Margo are in the writing, not the performance. Cara Delevingne’s performance as Margo is enigmatic and brooding, perfect for a character you hear about more than see on screen. The rest of the cast is just as good. Nat Wolff as Q, Austin Abrams as Ben, and Justice Smith as Marcus “Radar” Lincoln are all sincere and feel like real teenagers. It helps that the trio are playing only a few years younger than their actual ages. On a purely mechanical level, there’s a plot development in the final minutes that reeks of convenient movie coincidence that’s pretty hard to overlook.
The filmmakers handle where Margo went and Q’s search for her with a sense of mystery. The lore of the paper town – a real phenomenon where cartographers intentionally place fictitious names and landmarks on maps to expose plagiarists – was a concept I was unfamiliar with, and works as a great hook for the story. Aside from the lesson that Quentin learns, Paper Towns also offers breezy, light-hearted fun. Like how the trio of friends solves the problem of bathroom breaks, while being unable to pull over when the film switches gears in the last third to become a road movie.
Quentin learns he was wrong about everyone getting one miracle in life. Movies can be miracles, too. Paper Towns has too many flaws to be one, but it’s entertaining. That it partly succeeds in challenging a movie stereotype that deserves to be challenged as much as possible is a small miracle all its own.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- It’s an interesting movie that kept me guessing what would happen next.
- The performances from all the young leads were solid.
- Margo is a character created to deconstruct the idea of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, but she never feels like a real person. She’s written as a collection of character traits instead of as an actual character.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- The author of the source material, John Green, also wrote the book for last year’s The Fault in Our Stars. Fans of that movie can see one of its stars pop up in a quick, funny cameo in Paper Towns.
- As with most teenagers, sex is on the brain for almost all the characters in Paper Towns. I was really impressed with how the filmmakers handled it, including a first time scene. There was zero moralizing. It was treated for what it is, simply a fact of life that teenagers have to navigate like anything else.
- In several flashback scenes, the movie gives you a hint of what year it’s supposed to be by using quick visual cues. My favorite was a Halloween scene where one of the characters was dressed as a Spartan from the movie 300.
- Guinness Book of World Records for largest collection of Black Santas. It's hilarious. That's all I'll say.