Margo Roth Spiegelman.
That’s her name. And from the moment Quentin (or Q, as Margo liked to call him) first saw her, at the age of 9 or 10, he was smitten. She moved in across the street from his house and the two of them became fast friends. Partners in crime, if you will. Margo certainly did like mysteries and clues, that’s for sure. Like the time they found a man’s lifeless body slumped up against a tree in the neighborhood. Now that was an experience.
Over the years, though, and much to Q’s disappointment, the two drifted apart. By the time they hit their mid-teens they were almost like strangers. And Margo started doing unbelievable things like running away to join a circus for the summer and becoming a groupie tagalong with a traveling rock band.
Of course, that didn’t diminish Q’s feelings for her. Actually, it heightened them. She became incredibly glamorous and exotic in his eyes. In everyone’s eyes, for that matter. And Q feared that she was so beyond him that he might never even speak with her again.
That is, until she climbed in through his bedroom window.
It was in their senior year, not long before graduation, when Margo surprised Q awake in the middle of the night. She needed help exacting revenge on her cheating boyfriend, she said. She had a list of nine different vandalizing quests in mind, and she needed Q to drive her around town in his mom’s van. Q wanted to protest, he really did, but when she promised that, “Basically, this is going to be the best night of your life,” well, what could he do?
It was quite a night. But just as soon as Q thought Margo might be back in his life again, she disappeared. Gone without a trace. Or so her parents thought. This was, after all, the fifth time Margo had run away mysteriously without explanation. “She’s just gotten bored again,” her mom grumbled.
Q, however, suspected that there might be more to this particular vanishing. For he started noticing little potential clues left here and there: a specific poster in her bedroom window that he hadn’t seen before, a piece of paper holding an address tucked away in the hinge of his bedroom door, a—
Maybe the girl who loved mysteries had purposely become a mystery herself. Become a conundrum she wanted him to untangle. On that last night together she had challenged him to move outside his comfort zone, and this could be her way of forcing him to action.
And the paint-by-the-numbers Q is finally ready to color outside the lines.
Although things aren’t exactly as Q thinks, Margo’s actions do motivate him to explore the things he thinks and feels in positive ways. He and his borderline-nerdy buds Ben and Radar all reach for a deeper understanding of their friendships and devotion to one another. And Q walks away from his adventures with the knowledge that people don’t have to be beautiful or exotic to be enjoyed and valued. “The trick is to notice before it’s not too late, he opines. He also gets a better handle on what true love is all about.
Q says he believes that, considering all the unlikely things that happen in the world, everyone gets a miracle.
High school girls, including Margo and another teen named Lacey, wear revealing outfits that range from tiny jeans shorts and a cleavage-revealing tank top to barely there crop tops. And in Q’s dream, Margo wears a sexy dress with a neckline cut down to her navel. We see a guy and girl making out on someone’s bed, both without shirts. (She’s wearing a skimpy bra.)
A high schooler climbs naked out of his girlfriend’s bedroom and turns toward the camera (his genitals barely blocked at a distance by someone’s held up cellphone) before running down the street. Later, a number of comments are tossed around about the size of his private parts. Lacey complains of rumors circulating about her sexual reputation and the fact that she had chlamydia. Ben regularly spills out obnoxious comments about girls he and others have had sex with. And he says a number of raunchy things about Q’s attractive mom, including offering some incest-related recommendations to Q.
Radar makes out with his girlfriend and then loses his virginity to her (offscreen). Q tells a story of Ben having a kidney infection in their freshman year and the resulting rumor of his chronic masturbation. Margo and Q kiss.
An angry dad discharges his shotgun out the front door of his house to scare vandals away. As mentioned, two young children find the corpse of a man who committed suicide. (He clutches a gun, and there’s blood on his head and shirt.) Q barely avoids hitting a cow in the road, spinning the van and blowing out several tires in the process. A big high school jock slams Q up against his locker.
A couple unfinished exclamations of “What the f—” and six or so s-words join a handful of uses each of “a–,” “h—” and “d–n.” God’s and Jesus’ names are misused a half-dozen times total, with God’s name getting twisted up with “d–n” once.
A house party features a crowd of teens drinking beer and hard liquor. Ben gets roaring drunk from swigging everything in sight.
Parental guidance (or even simple involvement) is pretty much nonexistent in this teen-focused flick.
A number of toilet-tainted jokes float around. We see repeated urine splashing and drunken vomiting. Q’s late night romp with Margo involves a variety of malicious actions, including breaking and entering, spray painting a wall, and spreading Nair hair removal on someone’s eyebrows. Q convinces his friends to skip school with him, and he also takes his mom’s van on a 1,200-mile trip without permission.
The phrase paper town refers to the cartographic practice of creating nonexistent towns on a map in order to foil potential plagiarizers. But in a Millennial coming-of-age pic like this—which is based on a book by John Green, the of-the-moment writer responsible for The Fault in Our Stars—we’re told that it can also double as an image of empty suburban phoniness. It’s a “paper town with paper people,” Margo says. It represents that stifling trap of living a fruitless life. And, she insists, it’s something angsty (and generally privileged) teens must desperately avoid, leaving it in their rearview mirrors with a newfound “wisdom” their parents never had.
Paper Towns‘ quirky characters aren’t necessarily all that realistic. A worldly-beyond-her-years mystery teen who runs away to exotic adventures every couple of months whenever she’s bored? Right. (Often these kids sound more like thirtysomething screenwriters than high schoolers.) They are generally likeable, which I guess isn’t as much of a compliment as it should be.
That’s because where Paper Towns really cuts you is with its core message. Narrator Q does point out the importance of not idolizing the pretty and exotic people around you, suggesting it’s better to learn to enjoy the miraculous thing that is your life. That’s solid advice. But this flick generally glorifies all the possible train-wreck stuff of high school floundering—from drunken house parties to sneaky sexcapades to secret road trips—as the basic building blocks of moving from adolescence to adulthood.
And the film takes that attitude even a step further.
When Margo and Q have their night of vandalizing and vengeance, Q remarks that he’s so scared and excited by their actions that he can feel his heart thumping in his chest. Margo tells him, “That’s how you know you’re having fun.” And she enthusiastically claims that that adrenaline rush of rule-breaking and risk should be how your life always feels.
Now, anyone outside of high school or Hollywood will know the foolishness of such carnal counsel. But taken to heart, it’s the kind of exalted, pulpy nonsense that could land some teen moviegoers in one of life’s shredders.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.