Julie is not literally the worst person in the world. After a time, she just feels like she is. Haven't we all at some point had that kind of self-reckoning where we think, “I need to get my act together?” Joachim Trier's film The Worst Person in the World is about this exact phenomenon. Renate Reinsve plays Julie, a young woman we watch grow up over the course of two hours in our time, four years in hers. A series of events force her to confront her own reckless, carefree nature and re-evaluate who she is. Rarely has a movie so skillfully captured the process of personal growth.
When we first meet Julie, she's a medical student who decides to switch to psychology, then again to photography. She's one of those people who can never quite settle on something because her attention and focus are too scattered. Her love life is the same way. When slightly-older boyfriend Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) says he wants children, Julie silently freaks out, then goes and starts an ongoing flirtation with coffee barista Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), whom she meets after spontaneously crashing a party. This eventually turns into a full-fledged fling. When she finally does tell Aksel about it, she also sleeps with him one last time before breaking up, as if this will somehow make him feel better rather than worse.
That's a snapshot of the person Julie is. Her impulsivity leads her to make erratic decisions, to jump from one thing to another, to be unable to foresee the potential repercussions of her actions. The Worst Person in the World tracks what happens as she goes through more career indecisiveness and romantic tribulations. Later on, she is reunited with Aksel, who has faced a significant professional crisis and now faces one that hits even closer to home. And this, in turn, is where Julie begins to see the light.
For all the seriousness of its subject matter, the film is often very funny in the early scenes. Julie's predicaments, which she totally brings on herself, are both raunchy and hilarious. She can't see the vacuousness of her behavior, but we can, and Trier encourages us to find humor in her lack of self-awareness. But then, as reality starts smacking Julie in the face, The Worst Person in the World smoothly glides into becoming poignant and even heartbreaking. If that transition didn't work, the whole story would fall apart. A smart screenplay allows it to happen organically. You won't find any big manipulations here. There are no contrivances to get Julie from point A to point B. All of it occurs authentically.
Renate Reinsve plays a big part in that. What a breathtaking performance she gives. Early scenes find her imbuing Julie with a playful sexiness, along with a palpable ambivalence about committing to anything (or anyone) too fully. Why get tied down when life has so many options? The actress interacts with her character's travails in an interesting way. She uses subtle changes in body language and affect to suggest that Julie is being impacted more strongly than she's comfortable with. And when confronted with harsh realities she cannot shrug off, that impact takes a toll. Reinsve is 100% convincing at every turn, giving the movie its power.
Anders Danielsen Lie matches her as Aksel. Without divulging anything specific regarding his character's arc, the actor brings an essential sense of wisdom to the role. Early scenes find Aksel almost desperately determined to not lose Julie. When he returns in the back half of the picture, though, he has more of a c'est la vie attitude toward his former girlfriend's infidelity and selfish behavior. He's been through his own maturation process and now is a bit of an example of where Julie needs to go. This is exceptionally strong work from Lie.
The Worst Person in the World encompasses so many facets of human existence – the laughs and the tears, the childishness and the maturity, the uncertainty and the discovery, etc. It's a film about looking in the mirror and recognizing that focusing too much on yourself has the effect of hurting the people you ostensibly care about. Thanks to Reinsve and Lie, this wickedly funny, emotionally resonant story is a knockout you don't want to miss.
out of four
The Worst Person in the World is rated R for sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and some language. The running time is 2 hours and 7 minutes.