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Review: The Worst Person in the World

February 11, 2022

By John Corrado

★★★½ (out of 4)

Julie (Renate Reinsve), the protagonist in Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World, is not actually as bad as the knowingly hyperbolic title suggests. Well, not really, anyway. Sure, she makes some bad decisions and struggles with selfish choices, but the same is true of most millennials navigating an increasingly self-centred world.

The third film in Trier’s so-called Oslo Trilogy, following Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2001), The Worst Person in the World is a story about transitioning from your late-20s to your early-30s while navigating life and relationships, told in twelve chapters, a prologue and an epilogue.

Julie is a character who cycles through several different career choices, college degrees and relationships, all within the span of the film’s first few minutes. The Oscar-nominated screenplay, co-written by Trier and frequent collaborator Eskil Vogt, does a really good job of establishing her character in this way, setting her up as an imperfect but relatable protagonist. Right from the beginning, we know exactly what sort of person Julie is, making us gladly follow her for the next two hours and change.

Julie settles into a relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a slightly older man who is the artist behind a crude graphic novel. Through spending time with his friends, she starts to feel the expectation to get married and have kids, things that she isn’t ready for yet. In one of the film’s chapters, she sneaks away to a party and meets another guy, Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). They don’t cheat, but a connection is born. Julie starts to second-guess her relationship to Aksel, and so on and so forth.

Aksel is reaching the age where he is starting to think about settling down, and suddenly Eivind, who is stuck in his own increasingly demanding relationship, starts to seem like a more exciting prospect for Julie. This might sound like the makings of a simple love triangle, but Trier’s film goes a bit deeper than that. It’s a film about chance encounters and the little moments where choices are made that come to define your life, and Trier for the most part sidesteps cliché.

Trier’s strong directorial choices make it feel fresh and alive, including some creative uses of voiceover narration and a few captivating magical realist touches, such as a “frozen in time” interlude with Julie running through Oslo as everyone stands still around her. There are shades of the Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig film Frances Ha. Like a Baumbach film, Trier and Vogt’s dialogue is sharp and quick-witted, while still sounding believable, which is also a testament to the actors delivering it.

Reinsve (who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for the role) grounds the film with her effervescent performance as the likeable if at times frustrating Julie, helping us understand where her character’s head is at, even if we question some of her decisions. But it’s Danielsen Lie (who also starred in Trier’s Reprise and Oslo, August 31st), who leaves the biggest mark on the film with his compelling and at times heartbreaking performance, revealing new layers of depth to his character as the film goes on.

While presented in the guise of romantic dramedy, The Worst Person in the World is deceptively about many things, including major life decisions that pretty much every young adult has to go through, such as the choice of whether or not to have kids. It’s in the film’s last act that Trier delivers an emotional gut-punch, with a scene so raw and beautifully written that I haven’t stopped thinking about it. There is an underlying melancholy to the film that heightens its impact. It actually caught me somewhat off guard when I first watched it, mainly because it’s much sadder than I was expecting, in a way that I found hard to shake. But this is also the beauty and power of the film.

The result is an honest, believable and relatable film that is highly entertaining to watch, but also isn’t afraid of going to some deeper, more painful emotional places. This is true despite any minor quibbles I might have. There is a mushroom trip that maybe goes on longer than it needs to. On first viewing, I also wasn’t entirely sure if the film’s epilogue was entirely needed, though I have somewhat come around on what Trier is trying to do in the final few minutes the more that I’ve thought about it.

No, Julie is not actually the worst person in the world. Not even close to it. But the film around her perfectly captures how the choices we do and don’t make, and the experience of dealing with the emotional fallout of them, sure can make us feel like the worst person in the world sometimes.

The Worst Person in the World is now playing in limited release, including at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. It’s being distributed in Canada by MK2 | Mile End.

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