This post contains spoilers for “Paper Towns.”
The high school seniors in “Paper Towns” and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” would have been seven when Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Savarin booted up The Facebook at Harvard in 2004, which means they’ve effectively never known a world where the public construction of self wasn’t an integral part of everyday life. Like characters in some convoluted time-travel adventure, they’re constantly aware that everything they’re doing has been done before; their stories aren’t written so much as remixed. The teenage boys in “Me and Earl” hone their filmmaking talents by doing goofy knockoffs of art-house classics, elaborate in-jokes with a target audience of two. “Paper Towns'” Quentin (Nat Wolff) lacks their sardonic self-awareness, but the movie, based on a novel by “The Fault in Our Stars'” John Green, supplies it in spades. Everything in the movie feels like a riff on something else, a teen trope exploited or subverted or both. Director Jake Schreier (“Robot & Frank”) leans so heavily on synth-y music cues and airy suburban establishing shots he might have won the job by entering a “Direct Like John Hughes” competition.
“Me and Earl” is a better movie than “Paper Towns” in almost every respect: It’s more sharply written and better acted; more visually inventive, less crammed with lazy, thoughtless recycling. (Early on in “Paper Towns,” Nat sneaks his parents’ car out of the driveway after dark, and even though it’s only moving at moderate speed as he eases onto the street, the soundtrack fills with the sound of squealing tires as he shifts into drive.) But “Paper Towns” is smart about one thing, and it’s precisely the thing that makes “Me and Earl” a smug, well-executed failure.
The problem with “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” comes down to the “Me.” It’s not just that Thomas Mann’s Greg is the least interesting of the movie’s major characters, and even several of its minor ones, but that we’re limited to — or, more to the point, confined by — his perspective. What matters isn’t that Rachel (Olivia Cooke) has cancer, but the effect that being forced to spent time with her by his well-meaning mom has on Greg. Greg is a white, suburban, middle-class film nerd; Earl is black and lives in a rougher part of town, but still shares his obsession with “A Clockwork Orange” and “Peeping Tom.” Greg is a character we’ve seen in hundreds of movies before, Earl a type almost never depicted on screen, but the movie keeps Greg in the center of the frame, and pushes Earl, whose version of inquiring after Rachel’s well-being is quizzing Greg on whether he’s seen “dem titties,” close to racist caricature.
Several critics, most thoroughly David Ehrlich at The Dissolve, have made the case that “Me and Earl’s” narcissism is a feature and not a bug — that the movie not only reflects Greg’s blinkered perspective but is about it. “By fiercely adhering to the subjectivity of Greg’s perspective,” Ehrlich writes, the movie “illustrates its hero’s journey away from the very things [critics] accuse the film of celebrating. While ‘Me and Earl’ is on its surface an uncomfortably proud celebration of stories in which enchanted dying girls and magical black men exist only to further the spiritual development of a vanilla white male hero, it’s also a rebuke to the self-absorption that makes those stories possible.”
It’s possible that this is the case in the Jesse Andrews novel on which “Me and Earl” is based, but that kind of sustained subjectivity is almost impossible to pull off in a fiction feature. Unless we’re advised otherwise, movies read as an expression of their creators’ perspectives, not their characters’. “Me and Earl” is a self-conscious movie, but beyond the “Me” in the title, there’s no evidence to suggest that self is Greg’s. We see things from his perspective insofar as he’s at the center of every scene, but the movie never gives us any other perspective to adopt, nor does it so much as drop hints as what’s going on outside the frame. And while its final minutes suggest that there were parts of Rachel’s inner life that Greg never had access to, it does so while once again structuring the moment to be all about him.
“Paper Towns” is likewise all about Q, as Quentin is usually called — or rather about his near-lifelong obsession with mysterious girl next door Margo Roth Spielgelman, played by model-still-turning-actress Cara Delevingne. Although he and Margo haven’t spoken in years, Q has continued to nurse a crush on her, effectively constructing an ongoing relationship between them that exists only in his head. His vision seems to be validated when Margo turns up at his bedroom window one night, just as she did when they were kids, and asks him to be her “getaway driver” on what turns out to be her last night in town. She’s cutting her ties to the cool kids who have kept them apart, getting revenge on a cheating boyfriend and the girlfriend she thinks covered up his unfaithfulness, and though the rule-following Q is nervous about abetting what turns out to be a series of whimsical felonies, he’s also thrilled to be along for the ride.
Margo seems like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl Incarnate, a charismatic but inscrutable character who’s so not interested in your rules, man, that sHe wRiteS worDs liKe tHis because she’s “big believer in random capitalization.” (Who does she think she is, tUnE-yArDs?) But she turns out to be something slightly more complicated, a meta-MPDG who protests being drafted as the center of Quentin’s — and, by extension, the movie’s — story. After their night of law-breaking, Margo — whose initials, lest ye overlook it, spell out “Mrs” — vanishes without a trace, nearly disappearing into high-school myth. But Quentin is convinced that she’s left a series of clues to help him track her down, from highlighted passages in Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” to her interest in paper towns, fictitious places that map-makers use to help root out copyright infringement. He spends most of the movie chasing her trail, then gathers a group of friends (road trip!) to track her down.
If Quentin’s detective work, which includes bribing Margo’s younger sister so he can poke around in her room, starts to seem a little bit like stalking, that turns out to be part of the point. Margo, it turns out, wasn’t leaving Quentin personal clues, and didn’t particularly want him to know anything except that she was okay. Her journey wasn’t just a means for Quentin to figure out who he was, and it damn sure wasn’t her way of telling a boy she’d barely spoken to in nine years that she’d been secretly in love with him, too. Considering that “Paper Towns” has devoted most of its length to just that fantasy, the abrupt about-face plays like the moralistic tags tacked onto Hollywood gangster movies from the 1930s, driving home the point that the criminal behavior whose appeal they’d just spent 80 minutes exploiting was really bad, and not meant to be enjoyed, no sir. But at least it’s a moment where Margot points out that she’s got her own inner life, one that exists outside of the boundaries — and, really, beyond the imagination — of a movie like “Paper Towns.” It’s kind of a trick — couldn’t they just make a movie about Margo instead? — but it resonates all the same. (What the movie really needed was a scene like the end of “BoJack Horseman’s” “The Telescope,” but that’s a horse of a different color.)
Although “Paper Towns” gives Margo an on-the-nose monologue about suburban conformity — “paper towns full of paper people,” etc. — the title also serves as a more resonant metaphor for Margo herself. When Q and co. track her down, she’s inhabiting one of the most famous paper towns, a fake place that now has a real population of one. But just as what seems to be a unique feature on those maps turns out to be an illusion, so it turns out Margo is, for all her iconoclastic legend, much like everyone else, a messed-up high school kid who’s still getting her shit together, not some chimerical object to be seized. She’s not special, and neither is Q, and there’s power, even wisdom, in that knowledge.
Maybe “Me and Earl’s” Greg isn’t special either, but the movie treats him like he is, if only by giving us access to an interior life it denies its other characters. “Paper Towns'” final flip-flop is a cheap gimmick, but given that “Me and Earl” is already loaded up with cheap gimmicks, one more couldn’t have hurt.