This review originally ran as part of Paste’s coverage of the 2021 New York Film Festival
Millennials were born into a world that no longer demands much of young people, yet somehow expects even more of us. Not as long ago as we might think, it was the norm for adults in their 20s and 30s to have it all figured out. A spouse, a career, a gaggle of children—at least one of these things and even better if all three. Young people now are caught in this strange purgatory between child and adult. We are afforded more time to become who we want to be and there is more pressure than ever to do so.
Enter Julie (Renate Reinsve, Dakota Johnson’s long-lost twin), a fickle Norwegian who has never stayed committed to one thing in her entire life. A teenaged overachiever, she dabbled in medicine before she discovered that she was more interested in matters of the soul than the body. So, she cuts and dyes her hair, dumps her med school lover and pivots to psychology pursuits before burning that all down too, shifting once again—this time to photography. But unsurprisingly, photography manages to bore Julie as well, and soon enough she’s off to the next new thing, next new hairstyle, next new guy in the adult coming-of-age film that is Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, the director’s follow-up to the 2017 supernatural thriller Thelma and his fifth film overall. Prior to this breakneck, whimsically-scored narrated montage of Julie’s life so far (edited with precision by Olivier Bugge Coutté and scored by Ola Fløttum), the narrator explains what’s going to happen: This is a film in twelve chapters, complete with a prologue and an epilogue.
Thus, The Worst Person in the World functions like a fractured collection of moments in one person’s life as they strive for self-actualization. The chapters are never consistently timed, some lasting only a few minutes and others lasting the length of a television episode, creating an atmosphere in which we never know how much time has passed, and yet time is passing all the same—and quickly—for Julie. When we’ve finally caught up to her present, she’s entered into a long-term relationship with a successful, 44-year-old graphic novelist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), whose prosperous career has given her the stability to work a day job at a bookstore while she decides what she wants to set her sights on next. She eventually manages to establish herself as a gifted writer, publishing a controversial essay entitled “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo.”
But as with most of Julie’s interests, she’s not entirely committed to writing either. And the age difference between Julie and Aksel manifests a nagging rift, the latter with a family and kids on his mind and the former still relegating such thoughts to “maybe” and “someday.” So, her relationship with Aksel becomes another thing that Julie’s wandering mind begins to stray from. She crashes a wedding party one jaded night after watching Aksel be fawned over by comic book fanboys and meets a sweet, silly barista named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). The two spend the night together, but not sexually, playing a cat-and-mouse game of seeing how intimate they can be with one another without actually cheating on each other’s respective partners. The night passes swimmingly, but the experience renders both of them in a state perhaps worse than having cheated. It leaves them forever on the other’s mind despite attempting to commit to not knowing each other’s names.
Julie’s coming-of-age story is one that we’ve seen before, not limited to the flighty, free-spirited pursuits of Noah Baumbach’s eponymous Frances Ha: The almost-adult searching for some sense of direction, eager to get even more from life than what others expect of them. But Trier keeps things interesting (his script co-written alongside Eskil Vogt), notwithstanding the fragmented approach to storytelling which is as uncommitted to one point in Julie’s life as Julie is. A sequence in which time and everyone within it are depicted as having entirely stopped except for Julie and Eivind toys with notions of reality versus fantasy, as Julie still clearly lives a life in which the future is brimming with promise and passion and the idea of being able to start something new. A later segment takes a more creative approach to a drug-induced trip, Julie’s brash dalliance with magic mushrooms begetting some provocative, albeit brief, preoccupations with the body.
And Reinsve is stunning as Julie: Beautiful but gentle, played with a sharp, puppy-dog personality that never negates the nervousness intrinsic to her readiness in beginning a new pursuit. Life is short, and Julie never wants to feel like she is wasting her years away on one thing without trying something else. Still, Aksel provides the clarity gleaned from age, the ability to more firmly commit to one thing or the other due to the prominently looming threat of time itself. But his arc creates a misplaced certainty within the consistently flitting narrative evocative of the very nature of life itself. It produces a monologue in the film’s third act and an increasingly saccharine turn of events that are affecting and devastating, but far too tidy for a film that prides itself on snapshots and uncertainties.
But the core of The Worst Person in the World remains—this idea that in life, figuring things out is integral to being, not becoming. To constantly change and evolve is to be alive. We are meant to be as malleable in spirit as we are in flesh, but to stay in one place or free oneself from the other is not indicative of a life less lived either way. Thus the title of the film is a cheeky one, a phrase with which Eivind, not Julie, refers to himself at one point in the film, when the perspective crosses over very briefly to his (and which reminded me of the similarly fleeting, funny perspective shift in Janicza Bravo’s Zola). Eivind felt like the world’s worst person when he began to drift from his girlfriend, Sunniva (Maria Grazia Di Meo), whose noble, newfound environmentally-conscious pursuits in sustainability created too much of a fissure in the lives they each wanted to lead. It’s true that such a thing can make you feel like the worst person in the world—too selfish, too unstable, not generous or understanding enough. A little too fickle and imperfect, just like this film. Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World is as indecisive as its endlessly curious heroine, but it is an invigorating, exceedingly kind portrait conveying that the journey is just as—if not more—crucial as the place we end up.
Director: Joachim Trier
Writer: Joachim Trier, Eskil Vogt
Starring: Anders Danielsen Lie, Renate Reinsve, Herbert Nordrum
Release Date: September 25, 2021 (NYFF)
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.