Festivals, Reviews

TIFF 2021: ‘The Worst Person in the World’—Understanding Millennial Angst Under Societal Pressure

The ironic titling of Joachim Trier’s film is the perfect way to capture how some of us describe ourselves at one point in our lives. Whatever our reasoning may be, however major or minor, we think of ourselves as “the worst person in the world” over it. In the final film of his “Oslo trilogy” following Reprise and Oslo, August 31st, Trier understands that none of those things are in our control, and the things that make us “the worst” are never our fault. He brings these moments of professional and existential highs and lows, making The Worst Person in the World one of the loveliest films of the year.

The Worst Person in the World is a film broken into twelve distinct chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue. At the center of everything is Julie, played by Renate Reinsve. Julie is nearing her 30th birthday but has trouble with staying committed. She switched her college major and is dating Aksel, portrayed by Anders Danielsen Lie. Aksel is the creator of the well-known but politically incorrect comic series named “Bobcat,” but his reputation is not as important to her. Everything about her life seems to be in order from here until she meets Eivind, a man much closer to her age portrayed by Herbert Nordrum. Julie’s life takes yet another turn, as each episode details what takes place over the course of four years.

Joachim Trier builds this film akin to a romantic comedy, but as he toys around with the structure, these vignettes allow us to feel the scope of Julie’s commitment issues. Each chapter is cleverly titled, but the shifts in tone never feel jarring. In one chapter, you could see Julie experiencing happiness, if for a very brief moment, but in the next moment she’s uncertain as to whether or not this should be what defines her as a person. These tonal shifts emulate Julie’s existential crises; in a sense, it feels like she is constantly being told what she could be doing with her life, and she is left without a decision to make for herself.

I’m nowhere near Julie’s age, and yet I felt like I saw a part of myself in her. I saw myself in that constant pressure to be a normal part of society, or in needing to have my whole life set in stone by the time I hit Julie’s age. It’s these reasons that made The Worst Person in the World hit close to home. Julie feels like the sort of person that we were at one point, unsure of what to do with our lives because we constantly feel the need to please the people around us.  Trier builds her as a complex character: someone you can recognize as the person you end up becoming, or someone you might know up close.

Julie isn’t the only person in the film going through such insecurities. There’s also her first boyfriend Aksel, the creator of the Bobcat comic which, as noted by a voiceover, Julie had found sexist (this is brought up again in one of the funniest scenes of the film). At age 44, Aksel already has a clear idea of what he wishes to do with his life, but he wants children—which Julie isn’t ready for. Julie’s second boyfriend Eivind also puts her in a bind, because he doesn’t want children, which would make her relationship feel stagnant. In Trier’s eyes, we are seeing people who feel pressure to be like other adults; locked into their futures, like any expected adult could be at any of their age. When watching how Julie’s relationships unfold through each episode, Trier breaks down the psychological effect of that conservative pressure, showing these people being further broken over time.

Many moments of hilarity are balanced with moments of tenderness, whether they go from Julie and Eivind spending time in a party bathroom to pee in front of one another (resulting in possibly the cutest fart joke on film since Ozu’s Good Morning) or the image of them smoking together, then passing the smoke from one’s mouth to the other. But there are two brilliantly surreal set pieces that stand out. One of these consists of the entire city of Oslo being in freeze-frame, while Julie runs from her apartment all the way to meet up with Eivind for a moment—signifying her freedom from the constraint of commitment. The other consists of a drug trip, where Julie takes hallucinatory mushrooms. Aksel’s cartoon comes to life as Julie confronts her own insecurities. The creativity on display is remarkable, but it’s what they mean for Julie that drives the scene home.

Renate Reinsve is bound to become a star for her portrayal of Julie, but she isn’t the only performance worth noting here. Nonetheless, you can’t come out of the film not in love with her, if only because of how she dedicates herself to such a complex character. Also excellent are Anders Danielsen Lie and Herbert Nordrum, who play Julie’s boyfriends, as they emphasize the highs and lows of her own life. But it is the latter’s role that stands out for the tragic turn of his own life in the film’s later moments. Any other filmmaker could have framed it as a burden in Julie’s life, but Trier doesn’t see it as such to create a character any viewer can empathize with.

With the many ways that Joachim Trier taps into millennial angst in The Worst Person in the World, it’s easy to see how a film like this could hackney the same old debates about life with or without the internet. None of that is relevant to the film, but the pressure from generations without those woes defines Julie’s arc in the long run. On the surface, The Worst Person in the World has the makings of a romantic comedy, but it is a perfect picture of the woes of not knowing what to do with your life on the spot in search of a future that you’re truly going to be happy with. Relatable, funny, and tragic, it is one of the best films of the year.

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