Paper Towns follows in the footsteps of other teenage existentialist classics like Rebel Without a Cause and The Breakfast Club, while still having something poignant to say.
The whole film, Quentin’s pining for Margo is paralleled with Ahab’s pursuit of the White Whale. Margo’s immediately given a transcendent quality. Quentin refers to her as his miracle and a mystery. She can’t be defined, nor can she be confined; the moment anyone tries, she runs away. Q loves her for it, or at least, he loves the idea of her, but I’ll get to that later in the review.
The first act fast-forwards through Q’s childhood to the present day, where he’s attending high school. He’s grown estranged from Margo but his obsession hasn’t stopped. So, when she climbs through his window one night and invites him to a night of mayhem, he jumps at the chance. The festivities for the night include blackmail of sorts, a saran wrapped car, an unwarranted waxing, and a room with a view.
Q’s night with Margo is the most stylized part of the film. It’s filled with slow motion shots of empty streets, neon lit palm trees, and hair blowing in the wind. It’s akin to the new age neon ennui captured in films like Drive and It follows. And like Drive, the film is scored with new age 80’s synth like Twin Shadows, Son Lux, Vampire Weekend & War on Drugs. All of this adds up to give the sequence a dreamlike quality, as though Q’s nostalgically recounting the night he shared in her mystery.
By the morning, she’s disappeared out of his life again. Persistent, or obsessed, he goes on a quest after her, piecing together the clues that she’s left behind for him and his friends. After a scene akin to something from Indiana Jones, where he lines up the tack holes on a wall with a map he finds folded on a shelf, they discover that she resides in a Paper Town.
They all go off on a road trip across the northern United States to find Margo, his princess. Spoilers—unfortunately, when he storms her castle, he finds it’s nothing but an abandoned barn. Further to the point, it’s a paper town, a non-existent entity. There was no castle, or princess, for that matter. Margo’s certainly real. She’s a complicated human being, but she’s not the “fine and precious thing” he thought she was. He projected the idea of love—that mystery and adventure—onto her.
He does find her, but unlike the classic quest tale, instead of leaving with her, he leaves with a lesson: “What a treacherous thing to believe that a person is more than a person.” In other words, Margo is a just a girl, the mystery was the intangible connection he felt between them.