Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: Paper Towns

Is it possible for eyebrows to break the fourth wall?

I know it sounds like a low blow, but I mean it as a complement. Cara Delevingne is striking and intense: runway model, Instagram superstar, Saint Vincent sweetheart, bane of Sacramento morning talk shows. She’s a real person who knows precisely what she wants, not a blurry average of every other teenage fantasy. She’s John Green’s thesis and third-act twist — and she’s on screen in the first two minutes of the movie.

I can’t quite explain why Paper Towns felt so off to me. It’s not that it felt untrue: Green’s prose sounded remarkably accurate, and even if it was only slightly less manipulative than your run-of-the-mill YA fiction, it pegged teenage wish-fulfillment to a T. And it’s not that it was half-assed, halfhearted, or poorly acted. Quite the contrary. Everyone is talented, hearts firmly affixed in the right place. I really respect where they went with this one. I only wish I could have joined them earlier along the way.

Instead I felt stuck in a noisy theatre for the first 70 minutes, watching a handful of fully-grown characters pantomime a Bildungsroman. Actors learning lessons I never believed they needed, to right a wrong that only existed when the script and (quite good!) soundtrack called for it. The journey required me to immediately accept a few things as Gospel: that Quentin is hopelessly obsessed with Margo, that she’s a conventionally popular teenager desperate for escape, that he needs to learn to put himself out there, to take a risk for once. “You need to learn to put yourself out there — take a risk for once!” [a paraphrased] Margo insists, in a scene meant to be laden with either naive fantasy or knowing nostalgia. But as much as I appreciated the attempt, I couldn’t identify with it at a distance or feel its emotional pull up close. Minus the heartstring tugs, the variably-charming collection of moments barely held together in service of its admirable message. It’s a shame, isn’t it? When all those strings just break?

See my review on Letterboxd