The opening minutes of Paper Towns, the latest instalment in the John Green Cinematic Universe, aren’t especially promising. Our middle-class white teenage protagonist explains, in faux-profound seriousness, that “everyone gets a miracle.” Maybe you win the lottery, maybe you “marry the Queen of England.” Said middle-class white teenager, Quentin (Nat Wolff), has already found his miracle, apparently, in the form of the girl next door: Margo (Cara Delevingne). It’s all very privileged, very entitled, born of someone who’s life is so effortless that they can only assume that they are predestined for great things – or least, one great thing. I regarded this prologue – which details Margo and Quentin’s prepubescent friendship – with a not-insignificant degree of trepidation. Is this simply poor writing, I pondered, or rather an expert mimicry of self-obsessed adolescent prose?
My pessimism proved to be misdirected. Rather than reinforcing Quentin’s perception of Margo as a “miracle” conveniently served up to enrich his life, Paper Towns ultimately asserts that she is no such thing: “She is a girl.” The whole narrative serves, as much as anything, as a deconstruction of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype: the concept of a flighty, idiosyncratic girl who will sweep in to change the life of our mawkish, precocious protagonist without establishing any interiority of her own. I understand that this plays as revelatory to teenagers – for whom the idea of other people as, well, other people has been hitherto unconsidered – which is admirable, I suppose, even if it’s less shocking to those of us who’ve (mostly, hopefully, possibly) grown out of youthful solipsism.
Walking out of the cinema, my initial reaction was tempered positivity. Delevingne’s performance was on point, capturing both Margo’s enlivening energy as she accompanies Quentin on a midnight adventure and embodying her sheer ordinariness later on. There were certainly elements that didn’t quite come together: while Wolff was admittedly charming in a supporting role in The Fault in Our Stars, he was a charisma vacuum here, failing to provide any substantial reason to care about his middle-of-the-road hero. And it was hard to stomach the labyrinthine particulars of the narrative; the series of elaborate clues used to locate Margo after her disappearance felt altogether too cutesy for the film’s common sense conclusion. But these issues were mostly balanced by a robust supporting cast (particularly Jaz Sinclair as Angela) and a joyful second act road trip, and I was ready to throw some faint praise at the film.
Then I made the mistake of stopping and actually thinking about the damn film, and that tempered positivity curdled into disdain. While Paper Towns’ conclusion appears to rail against regarding girls as symbols, as trophies to be earned, its midsection repeatedly contradicts that message in how it constructs and positions its female characters. Take Margo. What do we really know about her? She’s an outsider, drawn away from her parents and towards the counter-culture after stumbling across a stranger’s suicide at an early age. But how this experience affects her – if at all – is apparently beyond Paper Towns’ purview; it’s clearly an important formative experience, but we’re kept at too far a remove from Margo to understand how.
Perhaps one can forgive such omissions as casualties of adaptation; I haven’t read Green’s novel, but I could believe that some of the complexities of Margo’s character have been smoothed over by the constraints of commercial film-making. But this explanation can’t forgive the glaringly misjudged final moment spent with Margo. She’s initially baffled – and a little creeped out – that her next-door neighbour has travelled cross-country to hunt her down, while Quentin appears to be baffled that she doesn’t immediately tumble into his arms. This all makes sense – Margo has barely spoken to Quentin since their childhood and never given any indication of returning his romantic intentions. Then why the hell does she kiss him and invite him to come away with her? Perhaps a parting kiss would have made some sense, but from the picture of Margo we’ve presented – a rudimentary one, granted – her offer to run away with some childhood friend-slash-stalker is entirely inexplicable.
This isn’t an outlier, either; Margo’s best friend, blonde bombshell Lacey (Halston Sage), initially regards the awkward flirtations of Quentin’s friend Ben (Austin Abrams) as appropriately creepy, but smash-cut forward half an hour and she’s inviting him to the prom. Why? It’s not because of any meaningful chemistry developing between the two (or at least, if that’s the intention, the actors do not sell it). Instead it’s because of Ben’s moment of reflex heroism, whipping their van’s steering wheel to avoid a fatal bovine collision. It’s a classic girl-as-trophy trope, except we’re expected to regard it as progressive because she’s given ‘real characterisation’ (well, she’s insecure and she likes Pokémon, but give she’s like fifth-billed in the cast it’s something).
Paper Towns, then, feels like it’s taken the first step on the path away from ingrained sexism – the sort of step that teenage boys take as they develop mature, meaningful relationships with women that aren’t defined wholly by desire. For a fifteen year-old, this is commendable enough, I guess. For a feature film, it strikes me as insufficient. It’s akin to recognising the problematic nature of the aforementioned Manic Pixie Dream Girl cliché but failing to understand that the overuse of that term is equally sexist, denying the agency of actresses to shape their own roles by assuming that any female character with an unconventional personality is purely an object of personal growth for the male protagonist.
The problem isn’t just that Lacey and Margo are halfheartedly proffered as prizes for Ben and Quentin, though it’s symptomatic of wider issues. For Paper Towns to be truly subversive it would need to actually demonstrate an interest in Margo beyond her role in Ben’s life, to expand its scope to truly consider her perspective. Really, why would anyone consider a straight-A’s do-gooder more interesting than a rebellious, imaginative, conflicted person like Margo? It’s not that Green isn’t capable of this! The Fault in Our Stars included considered characterisation of both Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and her mother (Laura Dern), while Angela – an admittedly minor character in Paper Towns – comes across like a real person, not a trophy.
My objection isn’t that Paper Towns is yet another film about a brainy, socially-awkward white guy (after all, I’m one of those), but that its conclusions about Margo being a girl – not a “miracle” – aren’t carried across to the way its story is told. (I have similar problems with David Ehrlich’s defence of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl – even if the film’s intent is to indict its central character’s self-obsession, that doesn’t really justify the choice to place such a character at its centre.) There’s a fundamental, unintentional hypocrisy here: lecturing your audience on the perils of regarding quirky girls as catalysts for enlightenment plays far less effectively when you go on to … use a quirky girl as a catalyst for enlightenment. Paper Towns reinforces the exact assumptions it purports to rail against, reinforcing its naïve protagonist’s worldview without even realising it.