Paper Towns: An Existential Mystery
Released in July 2015 and based on the novel by John Green, Paper Towns (2015) is a coming of age story centered on Quentin “Q” Jacobsen and Margo Roth Spiegelman, childhood friends who drift apart while growing up in a nondescript Orlando, Florida subdivision. I enjoyed this film. It weaves urban exploration, road tripping, and geography/cartography around deeper themes involving free will, expectations vs. reality, friendship, and how we confront our own mortality. The title of the film, Paper Towns, comes from a type of fictitious entry that cartographers sometimes use to discourage plagiarism or copyright infringement. This becomes important when Margo Roth Spiegelman refers to Orlando as a “paper town” before she mysteriously disappears. Her friends attempt to track her down near a famous fictitious entry, Agloe, New York.
To briefly summarize the plot, as a young boy Quentin Jacobsen, played by Nat Wolff, is immediately smitten with Margo Roth Spiegelman, played by Cara Delevingne (a discount Emma Watson), after her family moves into the house across the street. They become inseparable, until one day they discover the body of a man who committed suicide in a park. Margo wants to investigate the man’s death, but Quentin chickens out. After that, the two drift apart. Quentin becomes a band geek who always follows the rules, while Margo constantly lives in the moment and falls in with the popular crowd. One night, in their senior year of high school, Margo asks Quentin to help get revenge on her boyfriend and her friends, who betrayed her. After sharing this moment together, Margo mysteriously vanishes. Quentin begins to break out of his shell, and enlists the aid of his friends in a lengthy search for his missing soulmate.
Being confronted by death at a young age affects the two main characters very differently. While Quentin emotionally suppresses the incident, it profoundly alters Margo’s perception on life. She realizes that every moment is precious, and that she can choose to live outside convention and try to be whatever she wants to be. This, of course, leads to numerous clashes with her parents and her ultimate dissatisfaction with life in Orlando. Her friends’ betrayal is the catalyst to finally leave everything behind. Quentin, on the other hand, takes Margo’s sudden reappearance in his life as a sign that she wants a more meaningful relationship with him. Following clues she left behind, he throws convention to the wind and pursues her to her hiding place in rural New York. Along the way, his friends also begin to break out of their shells and develop their own relationships. Margo’s do-as-she-feels philosophy is the catalyst that inspires this group of shy introverts to take risks and live life to the fullest.
While Quentin and friends ultimately must settle back into their previous life goals and routines, there is no such happy ending for Margo. Once shaken out of the herd mentality by her early confrontation with death, she can never settle down and live a “normal life.” This is a profound point that most moviegoers are likely to overlook because she is introduced as being a member of the “popular crowd.” How many “popular girls,” however, are introspective loners, read literature, study old maps, hang out in abandoned buildings, and run away from home to pursue their artistic interests?
The passion to have a richer life experience, a deeper understanding of things, and to escape the average and everyday is one response to human mortality. When confronted with the limits of human existence–the realization that we all have an “expiration date”–most people will seek comfort in convention, structure, and predictability. Some individuals, however, will disregard convention and take risks in an effort to get the most out of their existence. These individuals will remain perpetual outsiders, a sentiment expressed by Margo when she stares out a window of the SunTrust Center down onto Orlando and describes it as a “paper town” filled with fake people, “not even hard enough to be made of plastic.” At this moment, she reveals how alone she feels despite her apparently carefree, spontaneous life.
Inevitably, you end up asking yourself, am I Quentin or Margo? I can safely say I have been both at various times in my life, and the ability to identify with both characters added to the enjoyment of the film. Its refusal to tie up neatly at the end also appealed to me. After all, sometimes the guy doesn’t get the girl, and often times our expectations fall far short of reality. But the desire to find meaning in life in the face of death is something we can all identify with. Life and death is, after all, the ultimate mystery.