Part of Joachim Trier’s charm as a filmmaker is that he views cinematic experimentation as fuel for growth. Even when the results of such creative abandon don’t always land with grace, the attempt to fly is never less than astounding. Like his characters, Trier is not afraid to get messy when translating inner truths to a captive audience. His fifth feature, The Worst Person in the World, is a crowdpleaser that tackles the world’s greatest threat: human nature. Submitted by his home country of Norway for the 94th Academy Awards’ “Best International Feature Film” category, Trier’s latest subverts the “coming-of-age” story with a protagonist who resists time and expectation in favor of, well, life itself.
Meet Julie (Renate Reinsve), a woman on the precipice of thirty who trades in her academic brilliance for leisure living in Oslo until she realizes her occupational calling. Her journey during this extended personal time is divided into twelve chapters, a stylistic choice that lengthens the feel of the narrative. A two-hour character study becomes a lifetime’s worth of experience; the feeling of nagging restlessness waiting for Julie to finally “choose” is both intentional and structurally haphazard.
Trier throws in everything plus the kitchen sink for his heroine to go through, sometimes with unnecessary moments that stagnate the film’s inherent free fall spirit (a drug-trip episode is not as revelatory as Trier thinks). Nevertheless, this talented auteur makes no apologies for grasping at straws for just one tasty swig of hardcore reality. He finds enlightenment in small doses, but there is no greater cinematic bliss when it hits.
Chief among Julie’s dilemmas is sticking with a relationship that fares much better in actuality than in her head. Despite a rightfully concerning 10-year age gap, comic book artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) is an intellectual equal, makes her laugh like no other person in her orbit, and even forces her to confront the gut-wrenching reality that her absent father (Vidar Sandem) is never going to come around as a sticking presence. Aksel is everything she deserves, except maybe not at this particular moment.
Being in different stages is an understatement, as all of Aksel’s friends have families of their own. During a couples’ trip, screams and fits from the accompanying children only increase Julie’s rising trepidation surrounding potential motherhood. She confesses to not having maternal instinct, which Aksel assures will arrive in tandem with the birth of their child if they agree to go down that route. Aksel is patient, but Julie begins to feel the pressure of coming to terms with a decision soon. Her life becomes a dirty rug pulled from under her, waiting to be cleaned so that society can gleam with pride.
To maintain agency, to stop time from its headlong rush into the uncontrollable unknown, drastic change has to happen. Writers Trier and Eskil Vogt argue that sometimes the only way for young adults to reassert dominance over their lives is to simply do nothing. Inertia is a temporary solution until one can figure out the next step, made entirely on their own terms. Yet, being the responsible party is easier said than accomplished. Meeting a handsome man named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) during an emotionally vulnerable state further complicates Julie’s indecisiveness. Mistakes are natural, but must they be so dramatic, painful, and filled with collateral damage? That is the risk anyone takes when prioritizing their own emotional health.
Reinsve engulfs us with boundless energy that compensates for Julie’s questionable decision-making. She evinces joyful alertness when it comes to the endless possibilities surrounding her. In a stunning sequence that pushes the boundaries of cinema, Julie freezes and reverses time by running forwards instead of backward. This unforgettable moment is metaphoric originality at its finest. Well played, Trier, even if it means other scenes have a hard time measuring up to such a crowning achievement in filmmaking.
Just as impressive is Danielsen Lie as Aksel, who makes the most of a character saddled with divisive artistry and a questionable late-game subplot. The forty-something comic book and graphic novel author devolves into a representation of artists whose work comes under fire by “Cancel Culture.” Suggesting they should not face consequences or criticism for the problematic content in their work because it’s protected by artistic expression is an odd stance taken by Trier and Vogt, especially in a rom-com drama where the focus should be on its leads. Made worse is that Julie adores Aksel’s iconoclasm, thinking nothing of the sexism, misogyny, or barbaric treatment towards women in his popular comic series. While she shouldn’t be a spokesperson for his art, the fact that Julie holds virtually zero opinion when the script spends a chunk of time on his occupation is quite strange.
Speaking of careers, another issue I struggle with is The Worst Person in the World’s lack of self-awareness regarding Julie’s privilege. Unlike so many young people out there, Julie has the luxury of choosing whatever career or academic path she wants since she has wealth to fall back on. At one point, Aksel throws the option of Julie living at home as an insult, when in reality, she is fortunate to turn to a parental figure with the means to care for her rent-free. Considering how expensive it is to live independently for most Millennials, moving back in with mom would be a reprieve instead of being viewed as hitting rock bottom. Framing these setbacks as “major struggles” shows a bit of generational disconnect between Trier and the age group he’s featuring.
When it isn’t rolling in the mud of trending topics and attempting to speak for an entire generation, The Worst Person in the World succeeds as an illuminating look into how we deal with balancing love and personal growth. Providing us with a sojourn of life’s highest and lowest experiences only crystallizes its messy beauty. Furthermore, Reinsve’s nuanced performance demonstrates how outward change doesn’t have to look explosive for it to feel major. As for Trier, he has solidified himself as an auteur who has earned the right to take massive swings. With his latest sweeping drama, he strikes something both profound and everlasting.