A paper town is a named place on a map that doesn’t exist; it’s a copyrighting method used by cartographers to prevent duplication of their work, and exactly the kind of thing that would fascinate a young adult who feels trapped by their idyllic suburban upbringing.”
The problem with Paper Towns is white privilege. There’s nothing less interesting to watch than entitled young American teenagers complaining about the deep philosophical holes in their upbringing. And these are some abnormally self-aware teenagers. Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) has been in love with his neighbour, Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), since the day she moved in across the street. While fast friends as children, they grew apart as she became more outgoing and enigmatic, while he became more introverted and shy. Until one night Margo turns up at his windowsill to invite him on an adventure. The next day, she’s gone.
It sounds like an intriguing premise, and this movie is brimming with promise. All of the young actors do a great job on screen, even Q’s stereotypical friends and the placeholder female characters who serve to round them out. Margo seems like an interesting character, but you can’t shake the feeling she’s little more than teenage wish-fulfilment. Quentin is probably the most authentic character, but even he feels like a perfected vision of someone’s adolescence.
Paper Towns feels like a love story written specifically for introverted young nerds and the gregarious, ethereally beautiful young women they fantasize about. The two leads have a decent bit of chemistry, but it’s staggered by the same old awkward/pretentious teen formula. Margo, especially, feels like nothing more than an idealised vision of teenage rebellion; a kind of manifestation of the type of lies teenagers tell to make themselves seem cool.
The mystery aspect of Margo’s disappearance adds a fun alternative element to the prescribed teen movie narrative, but ultimately it winds up feeling just as self-indulgent as Margo herself. While it’s easy to see how Quentin could fall in love with such an inscrutable young woman, it’s equally plain to any former teenagers how fruitless his quest will be, no matter the outcome. There’s a modicum of that convention scrambling narrative trickery that source novel author John Green can bring to bear in the final act – the sort of bait and switch tactics that made The Fault in Our Stars such a standout. Alas, it’s not enough to save Paper Towns, a film that is ultimately much shallower than it thinks.