I’m “biast” (con): really tired of manic pixie dream girls
I have not read the source material for Paper Towns
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Here we go again. Lonely, misunderstood teen — a boy, of course — discovers life and adventure and excitement via kooky gorgeous “miracle” neighbor: who is a girl, of course. Margo (Cara Delevingne: The Face of an Angel, Anna Karenina) is prone to wearing black nail polish and saying things like “I’m a big believer in random capitalization” and climbing into the bedroom window of Quentin (Nat Wolff: The Fault in Our Stars, Palo Alto) in the middle of the night to take him on an “epic adventure” that she promises will be “the best night of your life.” And it is, because even though this epic night is mostly taken up with pranks on the level of toilet-papering someone’s house, they’re only 17 years old; they haven’t done much. (Plus, they live in Orlando, which is not the most thrilling place on Earth.) Gosh, boring ol’ Quentin is gonna be so transformed by Margo’s joie de vivre and quirky mysteriousness!
Margo might be the most manic, most pixie, most dreamy manic pixie dream girl ever. Infuriatingly, this is intended as a feature of this parade of forced charm and dreary adolescent angst, not a bug. Based on the novel by John Green — who also wrote The Fault in Our Stars, which made for a far more engaging film than this one — Paper Towns thinks it’s all about debunking the myth and the mystery of the manic pixie dream girl, by leading Quentin on a quest to find Margo when she disappears after their “epic adventure,” a quest that ends when he learns that Margo is a messed-up human being, not a “miracle” and not a fantasy object for him. This is not a spoiler, unless the notion that girls are people too comes as a shocking revelation, as it seems to for Quentin.
The problem with Paper Towns — from director Jake Schreier, who made the genuinely charming and funny and insightful Robot & Frank — is that by the time Margo’s MPDGness is debunked, she has already served the precise purpose that MPDGs always do: she is not a person in her own right in the story but a prompt for Quentin to grow and learn and change. The idea of Margo — not even Margo herself! — fosters and supports Quentin. The film explicitly excludes the possibility that its story could be about Margo by telling us that whatever is going on with her is “her story to tell.” And Paper Towns has absolutely no interest in telling it.
If teenaged boys truly do need to be sat down and have it explained to them that girls are actually people coping with their own personal disasters and detours, the way to do that is to let girls tell their stories, not continue to turn them into props for the betterment of boys’ humanity. Just let the girls have their humanity.
manic pixie real girl
Greta Gerwig’s Brooke, in the marvelously fresh and funny Mistress America, isn’t a manic pixie dream girl, at least not in the cardboard barely-there sense that the term usually denotes. She is an inspiration to her soon-to-be-stepsister, Tracy (Lola Kirke: Gone Girl), and a prod for the quiet college freshman to get out and experience all the weird wonderfulness that New York City has to offer. But it’s absolutely clear from the get-go that if Brooke is a force of nature, she’s more tornado than summer breeze: as wantonly heedless and thoughtlessly cruel as she is confident, as full of herself as she is full of ambition. She is a whirlwind of creativity and a fount of possibility with, apparently, no idea how to follow through on anything.
Mistress America — the title comes from one of Brooke’s never-to-be-achieved ideas for a TV show about a female superhero — is very much what a story about a manic pixie dream girl might look like if it booted out the mopey guy trailing around after her and let the woman herself take center stage. And then pulled back the veil on her alleged perfection to reveal her complicated, contradictory humanity. Brooke is, Tracy eventually decides, “all romance and failure.” Which is one of the most bracing ways to describe a woman onscreen that I have heard in forever, because “failure” isn’t something we let women in movies be (unless they’re villains to be thwarted). Yet failure — and learning from it — is absolutely essential to a character’s growth and to any portrait of a believable person. That pop culture rarely lets women experience this is a huge problem, and contributes to the deficit of humanity granted women
But here is Brooke, all romance and failure, and a hoot to spend time with, even if she is a mess. Her mess is what makes her fun, in fact. Director Noah Baumbach (While We’re Young, Frances Ha), who cowrote the film with Gerwig (Frances Ha, Lola Versus), turns the adventures of Brooke and Tracy into something that feels like a mashup of, well, Baumbach’s usual bohemian caprice, a John Hughes-ish lark, and old-fashioned screwball comedy, all rapid-fire wit and snark and aching wisdom, though sometimes of the variety that the speaker doesn’t realize she’s hit on. There’s suspense, too, in wondering whether impressionable Tracy, who very quickly comes to adore Brooke, will mold herself in Brooke’s image — probably not the best idea — or find her own way.
Fie on those guys who need manic pixie dream girls to help them find themselves. These two women are muses and motivations for each other as they try to figure out where they fit in, what they should do with their lives, what they even want in the first place. Girls and women need help along the way just as much as boys and men do. More movies need to appreciate that, and show us that.