The film’s title, Paper Towns, refers to a trick used by cartographers to prevent other mapmakers from copying their hard work. The cartographers would create fake towns – a.k.a. “paper towns” – so that if those faux cities popped up on someone else’s map, they’d know they had been ripped off.
These paper towns look just like real towns on the map, but in reality there’s nothing there.
It’s an apt title for this film, which appears from the outside to be a sentimental teen movie, but when you actually see it, you realize there’s no substance inside.
The film begins with voiceover narration from our “hero” Quentin (Nat Wolff), who explains that, in his mind, we all get one miracle in our lives. For some, it’s hitting a home run or winning the lottery, but for Quentin it’s the fact that he lives across the street from Margo (Cara Delevingne), a husky-voiced, impulsive pretty girl who befriends Quentin simply because of their close proximity to one another.
The two drift apart as they enter high school, but Quentin continues to pine after her. One fateful night, a few weeks before graduation, she shows up at his window and talks him into aiding her in a series of wacky hijinks aimed at getting revenge on her cheating boyfriend and the friend group who knew about it (this includes everything from hiding a fish in someone’s room to using Nair to take off someone’s eyebrow to saran wrapping someone’s car).
After their night of petty crimes, Margo completely disappears. As Quentin explains: “Margo always loved mysteries. And in everything that came afterward, I could never stop thinking that maybe she loved mysteries so much that she became one.”
This is a line that sounds sophisticated and deep, but makes no sense if you really stop to examine it. The film is full of little lines like this, which are meant to sound clever in a Hallmark sort of way, but aren’t nearly as clever as they’re meant to be.
Similarly, I found Margo to be really grating. She’s meant to be charming in a Manic Pixie Dream Girl sort of way, doling out life advice to Quentin to teach him that he’s too buttoned up and cautious and just needs to live life to the fullest. To her credit, Cara Delevingne – who looks and sounds like the love child of Emma Stone and Lindsay Lohan – does her best to inject life into the roll, but she can’t rise above the clichéd script.
When Margo first disappears, her parents tell the police they don’t want to file a missing person report because Margo is just doing this for attention and that she’ll come back when she’s bored or out of money. Quentin’s voiceover tells us that clearly they aren’t going to be nominated for parents of the year. Maybe this is a sign that I’m getting older, but I didn’t think they were bad parents at all. I actually felt bad for them and their inability to reign in this 18-year-old troublemaker. I assumed they were doing the best they could given the circumstances.
Margo leaves a series of clues to her whereabouts, which Quentin takes as an invitation to go find her. He’s aided in this quest by his stock teen drama friends, Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith). Ben is a horndog and Radar is overly cautious . The three of them are band nerds (because, of course they are) who have never been to any parties or done anything wild. Their pursuit of Quentin’s missing Manic Pixie Dream Girl gets them all out of their shells.
While Ben and Radar’s characters will seem very familiar to you (particularly if you’ve seen the far-superior Girl Next Door), I did genuinely enjoy Radar’s relationship with his girlfriend Angela (Jaz Sinclair). Radar has a lot of anxiety about losing Angela and is particularly worried about her ever seeing his parents house, which are filled with one of the largest collections of black Santa figurines. Their relationship was the one aspect of the film that did ring true to high school – the anxiety Radar has and his fear of simply talking to Angela about these fears are the exact pitfalls young couples fall into. And the resolution to their plotline was genuinely heartfelt. (Radar also got the film’s biggest laugh thanks to a serendipitously-timely joke about a Confederate flag t-shirt.)
Eventually, Quentin and the gang also recruit Lacey (Halston Sage), a member of Margo’s popular clique at school. She also wants to track down her friend and, following the rules of hack teenage movie screenwriting, she appreciates that Quentin and his friends see her as a real person instead of just a pretty face.
You can probably guess what happens from there. You’ve seen these beats in hundreds of teen dramas that came before this. Paper Towns has nothing new or interesting to say about love or adolescence or the human experience. It’s a paper movie simply looking to separate you from your hard-earned paper money.