I know only of John Green what Hollywood has told me, which means Paper Towns is but my second venture into the mind of “the Teen Whisperer,” as Margot Talbot once referred to him in The New Yorker. As with The Fault in Our Stars, the characters in Paper Towns are self-reflective and hungry, but also suitably naïve and marvelously ignorant of the world beyond high school. Green doesn’t flatter teens, but neither does he flatten the teenage experience into a dead tableau of sex worry, prom plans and college admission anxiety. Rather, many of his characters possess a genuine dignity of person as well as a healthy fear for what could happen if they lose that dignity. That said, The Fault in Our Stars put plastic tubes up the nose of a dying heroine, while Paper Towns employs a notorious panty model to play some milquetoast’s dream girl. The first Green film aimed at transcending the teen genre, and offered adults who wagered the cost of a ticket an ambitious albeit old fashioned weepy. On the other hand, the second Green film is neatly situated somewhere between She’s All That and Crossroads.
One night, after their friendship seems a thing of ancient history, Margo enters Quentin’s bedroom through a window and convinces him to help her with a dangerous nocturnal mission. For a moment, I could believe Quentin had simply done a poor job presenting her divinity. Anything was possible. Margo the Mystery. Margo the Enigma. But the premise is too grand and the two simply drive around all night executing mediocre pranks on anyone Margo chooses, sometimes rather arbitrarily. As morning dawns, the Tom Green Bonnie & Clyde stand in judgment over the Orlando skyline in a shot which recalls the finale of Fight Club, and Margo confesses that she has never known anyone who genuinely cares about anything. For a girl who loves adventure, she doesn’t get out much. Quentin interprets her disaffectation as unfulfilled longing and wants her all the more. “You met me at a very average time in my life,” I wanted him to say.
The morning after, Margo is gone girl and Quentin believes she has left him a trail of crumbs to follow. He stalks her ghost, scouring books he finds on her nightstand as though they are Holy Writ capable of sustaining multiple levels of interpretation. He loses interest in school, and his friends think him nutty, but a series of clues seems to interlock with one another and so Quentin strings himself along, convinced the sublime has finally opened itself up to him. The signs direct him to a small town in upstate New York, and so Quentin and a van full of easily forgettable sidekicks road trip it a thousand miles to find a girl that none of them really knows. On the way, one of the sidekicks meaningfully deflowers another in a field beside the highway, and the kid who puked in the vase gets asked to prom by a girl a full eight points hotter than he is. Nobody’s bravely climbing a ladder to Anne Frank’s loft in this one, ladies and gentlemen.
What few delights Paper Towns has to offer are saved for the final act, which very tepidly breaks convention. It turns out the clues Margo left were largely constructed out of Quentin’s imagination and in a rather sudden turn, Margo confesses she is not a particularly interesting person, but a fake. The suspicions of the mildly skeptical adults are confirmed. Quentin declares her special nonetheless, then returns home to his sidekicks who are dancing in slow motion at prom. The young possess springy bodies and springy souls, as well.
To be fair, much of this review is guilty of the nothing-but logical fallacy. I can certainly remember nights in high school I might want to describe as epic or legendary wherein nothing more than few dry ice bombs were blown off after dark, or else we all talked until dawn about life, or else someone bought cigarettes without a legal ID. However, fictionalizing such events is difficult without lapsing into the mock-heroic. If there is a glory particular to youth, it is the purely intuitive knowledge of the soul’s immortality— a knowledge so intuitive, it cannot be contemplated by those who possess it. Thus the trials and triumphs of youth pass against a timeless backdrop, which tends to render many earthly affairs meaningless. Adults know that a good reputation can be won and lost and won again many times over before marriage with minimal effort. Getting your heart broken at sixteen is a lot like getting caught with a joint at sixteen— you live it down faster than you think. It’s not like getting your heart broken at forty, or earning yourself a DUI after you have a career.
In order for genuine tension to arise in a teen movie, the presence of something inevitable or something dangerously tentative is necessary to throw the ephemerality of youth into perspective— which might be an acrobatic way of saying that a teen movie can’t really make it without the presence of adult characters. Imagine what Rushmore would have been without Herman Blume or Rosemary Cross. Think of The Virgin Suicides without the worrying parents or the pathetic Trip Fontaine interviews. What would Ordinary People be without Judd Hirsch’s Dr. Berger? Even a less ambitious film like Can’t Hardly Wait depends on two burned out adults (Jerry O’Connell and Jenna Elfman) arriving late to scare the kids straight.
Paper Towns lacks a single named adult character, though, and so the events of the film pass haphazardly and in a free, unconcerned fashion. No one will die. No one will really fail. The standards for amazing and terrifying are kept at about knee-height. I’ve attended enjoyable dinner parties with more on the line.