My name is Hunter, I am 25 years old, and I don’t need a governess…I also am having a severe quarter life crisis right now and am struggling. I’ve been having trouble as of late deciding what I want my life to be, and I can often feel alone in my endeavors on it. The ironic bit is that I know that most, if not all, of my friends are also experiencing such a phenomenon. We’ve been pushed into a world with antiquated training, throwing us to the wolves and hoping we kill each other quick enough to secure our spot in the coveted “deserves health insurance” category of people. While Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World (Verdens verste menneske) can’t comfort me in that I’m-about-to-be-26 crisis, since Norway has this magical thing called universal healthcare, I found myself nearly immediately seen by a film that wants to tell an honest story, not just an entertaining or quippy one.
Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a graduate student studying medicine in Oslo, until she isn’t. She’s then a graduate student studying psychology in Oslo, until she isn’t. She then is a bookstore employee following her new passion of being a professional photographer, until she doesn’t really succeed with that either. When Julie enters a relationship with successful (and significantly older) comic book writer Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), who wants to settle down with kids, Julie begins to wonder if life is too quickly passing her by, and whether or not her life is worthy enough to savor for the time she has. Julie finds herself in the middle of an identity crisis, questioning who she is, who she wants to be, and fighting the temptation to be the worst version of herself.
Films and television shows about 20-somethings are far from uncommon. In fact, they can sometimes be the most common type of media out there. We all want to feel seen and significant in our media, but so much portrayal of those in their 20s focuses on successful people with the means to live an interesting, exciting life worthy of television. Then, the shows that don’t want to focus on that, like Girls, focus so much more on the characters being the sharpest, wittiest, funniest versions of themselves who get themselves into trouble competing to see who can be the biggest piece of shit out of all of them. The Worst Person in the World is a film that feels so incredibly special because it speaks to viewers who might not live in the hottest neighborhood in Brooklyn with cushy jobs and sexy boy problems. This is a film that speaks to us who live a 9-5 life, who don’t know how much we value the people around us (usually to our own detriment), and genuinely don’t know what the fuck we’re doing at any given point. Despite its name, it’s a film about someone simply trying to not be a complete asshat, and the realizations that lead us to finding a truer, more honest version of ourselves.
But we do make mistakes though, and Julie, played to absolute perfection by Reinsve, makes plenty of them through the 12 chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue). These are the moments that really play into Julie truly feeling like the title of the film, and expertly displays the ways in which millennials beat themselves up for every expectation that we don’t meet of ourselves. We lead ourselves down dark, destructive paths that we might already know won’t work for us, but we do it anyway because it feels good in the moment, and we can just deal with our consequences later.
It plays out all so incredibly because Trier approaches Julie’s life with a brutal honesty, which is a phrase I can’t stand most of the time, but in this case, it actually feels correct. It’s not an exercise in pain or suffering or loss, but rather a glimpse inside 12 pivotal moments in a young adult’s life, and how those things don’t always line up with expectations, and can so often go in the complete opposite direction. The difference here is that Trier wants to tell a story about how you dust yourself off and get back up when the real world rides you hard and puts you away wet. It’s like if the theme song from Friends actually told a real story after the credits of 20-somethings actually dealing with real life and not a sitcom to fall asleep to.
I simply cannot overstate just how wonderful Reinsve is in this film, though. We as an audience feel each societal expectation that she wants to defect against. We feel her confusion and don’t blame her for making some self-destructive decisions in the moment because we get to experience the monotony right beside her. She brings us so intimately into the decisions and intentions of Julie’s sometimes frustrating life. You might not always agree with the way she conducts herself, but you never once lose sight of her humanity, rooting for her every second of the way, even if it feels a bit immoral. That’s good acting. That’s how you sell an imperfect character. Bringing the audience with you instead of playing it up just for yourself is the secret, and Reinsve released it to the world here.
Trier, finishing up his Oslo trilogy of romantic dramedies, never lets a scene pass by where there isn’t something unique going on from a filmmaking point of view. The Worst Person in the World is unafraid to mix fantasy and reality, often playing scenarios directly from Julie’s imagination and presenting them as fact. It would be easy for an overzealous director to overplay his hand with just how much suspension of disbelief the audience is willing to afford, but Trier so elegantly and organically weaves it into the fabric of the narrative that I never once felt like anything was done for the sake of being flashy, unique, or “quirky.” There’s a direct intention with everything done here, even if the destination for each viewer ends up being something different.
The Worst Person in the World is a love letter to those who have yet to get their shit together, and it’s a beautifully nuanced piece of filmmaking that is both tender, and incredibly honest at the same time. Nothing is done for the sake of itself, and it’s never self-aggrandizing unless it clearly wants the audience to see it as such. It’s hard to find such direct and relatable storytelling in a world of cinema creating bigger, more concretely moral/amoral protagonists. It’s lovely to see a film that tries to tell a grounded story do so with such a grounded, flawed, sometimes frustrating character, but one that never feels inorganically cruel, or illogically destructive. These are feelings I feel on a regular basis, and Trier so excellently captures a singular, but so universally empathetic story of a single person’s life that becomes so much more than the one person it’s about.
Theatrical release TBD.
Screened during 2021 Film Fest 919.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.