By Kyle G. King. The term “manic pixie dream girl” was coined in 2007 by A.V. Club critic Nathan Rabin, initially devised to illustrate the shallow one-dimensional character design of “that bubbly cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and it’s infinite mysteries and adventures.” Its usage has evolved (or rather devolved) over the past few years from a sharp insult pointed at lazy writers to a dulled jab at the actresses who take such roles.
As the term came to be regarded as inherently sexist in itself — it happened when otherwise nuanced characters were quickly dismissed as brainless MPDGs — Rabin moved to redact his term, saying that “giving the idea a fuzzy definition gave the phrase [a] power it was not intended to have.” John Green (author of The Fault in our Stars) set out to explore — and possibly redeem — that controversial character trope in his 2008 YA novel Paper Towns, which like Stars, has seen a heart-wrenching adaptation to the big screen.
Cara Delevingne (who plays dream girl Margo Spiegelman) has a measly twenty minutes of collected screentime, which (like the trailer suggests) makes her quite the mystery to protagonist sweet boy Quentin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff). As Q longs for the days of his childhood when Margo and he were best buds, Margo makes whimsical plans of her own: after basically ignoring him for most of their high school career (she being indifferently popular, and Q being indifferently unpopular), she sneaks in through his bedroom window late one night — just as she had as a kid — to ask for his help.
They have the night Q’s been dreaming of, driving down the suburban Orlando roads of their “paper town,” pranking Margo’s estranged popular friends and dancing closely in the dark to “Lady in Red”. But Q wakes the next day to discover that Margo has skipped town and run away from home again. Convinced she wants him to follow her — due in part to clues she leaves behind — Q sets out on a road trip to find “the most gorgeous creature God had ever created.”
Through the filtered lens of a strong performance from Delevingne the spin of the MPDG finds new air in Paper Towns. As all these young characters come to discover who they are, who they want to be, and who people think they are, the appropriated cliches of jock/nerd/brainless pretty girl (and in turn, manic pixie dream girl) are propped onto the operating table for vivisection. Each of the semi-diverse characters are given at least one scene to break down preconceived notions about themselves, not only serving as smart commentary on high school-aged teens as a whole, but allowing the story to breathe while it respectfully plays out. Austin Abrams (at 18 years old) and Justice Smith (at 20) both provide an authentic teenage energy as Q’s inseparable two best friends, Ben and Radar. While Wolff rightfully remains slightly more removed in their common high school rituals — so obsessed with Margo is he — Abrams and Smith breathe the fresh air of high schoolers you might actually know (or, to old farts like me, might remember knowing).
After they track Margo to another paper town in New York, the movie turns into a road trip fable of both heartfelt comedy and well-established drama. Quentin is soon pitted against the might of his friends and his own expectations of love as the search for Margo becomes more confusing and frustrating. He foolishly idolizes someone he barely knows to sacrifice relationships with people he does.
While Paper Towns leans plenty on cheese and less-than-progressive high school characters, it does explore the heart that lies in them all. What we have is a familiar story for the young adult audience to understand that has well-thought-out ideas for them grasp. Paper Towns sends a meaningful message to teenagers without talking down to them, like a good PG-13 feature should, and it helps to subvert the stale notion of the manic pixie dream girl in the process.