Julie (Renate Reinsve) – the protagonist of Joachim Trier The worst person in the world– is not the person about whom the sentiment of the title is expressed in the film itself. It comes in a piece of omniscient voice-over narration describing another character, more specifically, describing how he feels about himself. Corn he is also not the worst person in the world, and no other person confuses her in this story.
Trier, however, might have found the perfect title for a deeply compassionate portrayal of people living in an age of hyperbolic nomenclature and existential terror. As we follow Julie for several years of her life in her late twenties and early thirties, we observe someone trying to figure herself out, versus expectations of what she should have already figured out about herself. -same. A whole generation needs to hear what Trèves is shouting The worst person in the world: It’s okay not to know who you are until you really know who you are.
Structured (as the opening credits helpfully explain) into twelve chapters with a prologue and an epilogue, The worst person in the world introduces us to Julie as a student preparing for a career in medicine. Except that she quickly realizes that she is more interested in the mind than the body and changes course to study psychology. Then, psychology too seems to be the wrong path, and she takes an interest in photography, while accepting a retail job at a bookstore. With every change of direction for Julie comes a new hair color and style, conditioning us to assume that Julie is one of those flaky, hopelessly throwing millennials.
She is also seen bouncing between romantic partners, before seemingly settling down with comic book artist Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). Aksel, however, is over a decade older and a little more serious than Julie, so an encounter with a random guy named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), whom she meets at a wedding reception, takes on a glow. Magic. Oh, that hopeless Julie. Will she ever be satisfied with what she has?
It’s a testament to the beauty with which Trier and Reinsve shape the character of Julie that she never comes across as an object of scorn or pity. Reinsve’s performance not only comes to life when she conveys Julie’s impulsiveness, but also when she is at rest, like a complex facial expression that Trier captures as she returns home from a party. This depth of character also extends to all support players, like The worst person in the world refuses to oversimplify anyone. As easy as it would have been to reduce Aksel to the kind of guy who laments that his iconic cat character was artistically butchered for a movie version because his little cat anus was obliterated, or gets defensive in the face of the sexism in his work, Trier also allows Aksel some of the film’s more melancholy observations later.
The episodic structure suits a story about someone whose life perpetually feels like a series of false starts perfectly, but it also allows Trier the chance for some delightful formal play. While most of the story unfolds in a fairly naturalistic way, we also get a crazy sequence involving Julie’s trip on hallucinogenic mushrooms, and a fantasy in which she imagines what she would do one day when she could stop time. It also allows for sequences that showcase some of the most emotionally insightful films of the year, particularly the chapter involving Julie’s first encounter with Eivind, and the way they tiptoe around the confines of this which constitutes “cheating”.
There’s also a moment that can be easy to overlook, but seems to hold the key to unlocking Julie’s journey. At dinner celebrating Julie’s 30th birthday, the narrator begins to note what had already happened in the lives of Julie’s mother, grandmother, and other ancestors on their 30th birthday, going back several generations to point where “life expectancy was 35 years. It is this generational shift – from a world where women of Julie’s age had their lives already defined for them, to a world where almost too many paths are open – that The worst person in the world treated with so much openness and respect. There’s no right way to get to the point where you know what your life should be like, and taking a few extra years to get there should never leave anyone feeling like the worst person in the world.