A paper town is a fictional location inserted into a map by its maker, as a way to guard against plagiarism – if another map with the same town appears, the mapmaker will know her work has been cribbed. Adolescence is a paper town in more than a few ways. For the teenager, identity is often a paper town; a creation that marks the subject as original, one of a kind, even as it has no authentic relationship to a real psychic landscape. Identity, at that age, is often a force of will, an instance of “fake it until you make it.” As an adult, the paper town is an equally inauthentic marker of uniqueness that seeks to validate our earlier ersatz identity even as we disavow it. Yes, we say, we had no idea who we were or what we were doing, but we still stake the claim of our identity to the uniqueness of our own misadventures, even as we understand, and perhaps enjoy, that our own misadventures fit into the same mold as everyone else’s. (We take comfort in the familiarity of such stories, while also sticking to the fantastic ideal that we are unique in our sameness). Both of these conceptions of adolescent identity – the sui generis self-invention that is usually quite false, the after-the-fact recapture of that inauthenticity as the mark of authenticity (often in the case of lessons being learned) – form the substance of the film Paper Towns, adapted (with some minor changes) from the young adult novel by John Green. A seeming portrait of young love, Paper Towns is much more about how we love ourselves, or fail to, revealed through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we desire, and how we got from point A to point B on the always incomplete map of our lives.
The film reveals itself to be a thriller and a mystery rather than a romance in the first shots. Recounted during a flashback voiceover (what film these days does not have a young male voice telling us how it is?), Q (short for Quentin, played by Nat Wolff) recalls his first meetings with his spitfire (or mentally unbalanced) neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne). She is dark, sassy, older than her years, and generally enigmatic. Q is smitten. The highlight of their young romance, given short shrift by the narrative, is discovering a cadaver in a local park, the body of a recently divorced middle-aged man, gun still at his side, an apparent case of suicide. At least, so says Q, who got his information, it seems, from Margo. Margo is intrigued by this discovery, and we are intrigued that Margo is seemingly so undisturbed at the presence of the freshly dead. Flash forward a decade, and Q and Margo are in their final days of high school. Q has long carried a torch for Margo, but has also pretty much dismissed her as a possibility, as she has not spoken to him in a very long time, and is now the queen of the school, hanging out with the hot girls and dating the jocks. Yes, for those of us in the audience known as adults, Margo screams “stay away,” but Q is undeterred, bedazzled by her high style reprobate ways and wanna-be Joaquin Phoenix looks. So when Margo comes calling at Q’s window one night, needing a partner in crime for the evening (not a metaphor), Q hesitates all of 10 seconds before jumping at the opportunity. Apparently Margo’s jock boyfriend is cheating on her with one of her besties, and so now she is ready to burn her entire social circle to the ground with a night of antics that makes use of Saran Wrap, spray paint, Vasoline, and Nair. Q gets down and dirty, all to Margo’s liking, but hopes of a more permanent rekindling of the gasoline fire are doused when Margo disappears from town the next day (pretty much for the rest of the movie). Q keeps their antics a secret even as Margo’s parents (a schizo mix of blithe assuredness and smothered panic) bring in the cops, but like any good obsessive soon the world around him – his friends, his schoolwork, band practice and college – fade in relevance compared to cracking Margo’s mystery. And Margo apparently wants to be cracked, as she has left a trail of rather strained clues as to what happened to her and where she is. (This has been her modus operandi since youth, so Q has some prior training). Q plays Sherlock, eventually discovering a ratty abandoned souvenir shop that holds, no, not a meth head, but rather all the keys to where Margo went. Now fortified with the self-confidence provided to the obsessive by any shred of shaky information, Q and friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), along with their girlfriends, borrow Mom’s car for that short road trip from Florida to the paper town Margo has absconded to (Agloe, a fakeville just outside of Roscoe, New York). Along the way to nowhere, the teens all bond, and share a few low jinks, eventually finding the crossroads of Agloe and the abandoned barn that serves as town hall. When Margo does not appear, Ben, Radar, and co. split, pissed that Q is still huffing Margo’s fumes and yet still grasping at air. Not wanting to be late for prom, they take off, but Q, resolute, lingers. He stays at the barn as long as he can, and then drags himself into the real town, buying a bus ticket back to Florida. Low and behold, Margo happens to saunter down the main drag, and the two finally have a chance to hash it out. Margo disavows any interest in having been found – she leaves detailed clues almost completely obscured just for the fun of it. Margo claims she is in town trying to find herself (although what else she is doing there, where she is living and how she is supporting herself remain a mystery), and Q, satisfied that his love of Margo had more to do with an image he had built up in his own mind rather than with the flesh-and-blood mind gamer before him, gets on the bus and heads back to the life already mapped out for him. (Not before a lame kiss is exchanged and Margo offers that he can stay with her, doing at least a 90 degree turn from her previous disposition). Q gets back home and, like every other film made in the past 20 years, affirms that the real meaning of the journey was the time it gave him with his friends, who are the people who really matter, you know. Everyone dances at the prom, and Margo eventually goes on to be an “actress,” or something. Mmm hmm.
As a portrait of a young man mistaking the narcissistic, somewhat pathological “hot” girl for the love of his life, Paper Towns is not bad, and kind of plays like a junior version of a noir. Margo, while not an evil person, certainly is full of it, playing around with other people’s emotions while maintaining a (it must be said) very weak deniability. At the same time, Margo becomes almost mythic, or rather, a type, the representative of allure and immature desire, a stand-in for adventure and excitement that woman often represents for man in the noir narrative. (And while not fatal to Q, we have a sense that something is not quite right with Margo beyond teenage confusions, as per the opening sequence of her romping around a dead man’s body). You could rightly wonder if Margo exists at all, or is simply the fever dream of Q’s adolescence. (Yes, she exists, as everyone in school knows her, but the film diverges from the novel significantly in the end, which in the book is a group confrontation, but which in the film becomes a somewhat dream-like tête-à-tête). What remains, aside from the dross, is the aforementioned double portrait. Margo’s identity is the paper town of adolescence – not knowing herself, and with no substance to form her core, she cultivates a mystique that ensures her uniqueness, while keeping anyone intelligent enough to sniff out the cluelessness behind the mask at arm’s length. Quentin’s identity is also in name only, but his paper town is the retrospective type – his adventure with Margo is the quirky, strange tale of youthful folly that, while simply marking him as one of a million mixed up teens, also allows him to reaffirm the generic ideals and conventional life choices he subsequently makes (that friends are what matter most, that the journey is more important than the destination, that going to college rather than living as a will o’ the wisp in an abandoned barn is the right way to be). This double portrait of identity in flux, as a tale always being told and retold to ourselves, to solidify who we are and what we stand for, is the strongest part of the film. And the thriller/mystery aspect of what could have been a more straightforward slog is refreshing. All the same, in the end the movie is rather boring, like listening to a friend recount an experience in which you can spot all the embellishments and blind spots. Unlike the films of John Hughes, which it does resemble in passing, Paper Towns is not a portrayal of transition and maladaptation, but a recounting of such a period. Rather than letting the teens speak for themselves (even through an adult, as in Mr. Hughes’s work), Paper Towns, and many recent films of its ilk, uses voice over and a narrator as a way for ideology to speak through the film, in the guise of an adult recounting the past. What makes Paper Towns tolerable is that the ideology herein speaking is also cobbling together an identity, and has blind spots of its own. In its shaky quest to make us understand the risks of self-deception, in attempting to establish how we become what we are, Paper Towns also makes us wonder – who is kidding who here?