This review of The Worst Person in the World is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.
Swept up in a wave of youthful possibility, a whip-smart medical student named Julie (Renate Reinsve) pivots wildly between careers. First, she abandons medicine for psychology, then psychology for photography. With unlimited passions and unwavering parental support, Julie throws herself between professions, romantic partners, and social scenes. She is noncommittal and uncertain of everything except her unwavering commitment to herself. Though, that too seems to shift and twist on a day-to-day basis.
We’ve seen this film before: a young person anxious for their life to start, unaware that “life” has been happening all the while. And yet for all its familiarity, in Joachim Trier‘s deft hands, The Worst Person in the World manages to paint a portrait of millennial uncertainty that feels more sincere and life-affirming than even the best of its peers.
Julie meets Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie) at an art gallery. He’s a 44-year-old underground comix artist (and apparently a big fan of Robert Crumb’s Fritz the Cat). After a half-hearted attempt to brush off their tryst on the grounds of their age difference, the two couple up. As their relationship becomes more and more serious, Julie’s tendency to feel cornered pushes her into the arms of Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a wishy-washy barista who captures her heart during an endorphin-soaked meet-cute at a wedding reception.
Co-written by Trier and his longtime creative partner Eskin Vogt, The Worst Person in the World returns its director to more grounded territory in the wake of 2015’s underwhelming Louder Than Bombs and 2017’s seismic supernatural thriller Thelma. Trier’s latest directorial effort comprises the final entry in the director’s informally self-dubbed “Oslo Trilogy,” a triptych of films unified chiefly by their shared Norwegian setting. Following up the far moodier Reprise (2006) and Oslo, August 31st (2011), The Worst Person in the World may close out the “Oslo Trilogy,” but Trier’s latest is far messier and dynamic than either of its peers. And that’s wholly appropriate for a story centered on a twenty-something full of ambition and lacking in follow-through.
As Julie, Reinsve is radiant, complex, and positively captivating, embracing all of Julie’s contradictions and uncertainties: her kindness, cruelty, strong will, and restlessness. Julie’s trajectory is scattered, uncertain, but undoubtedly enthusiastic. Reinsve’s Best Actress win at the Cannes Film Festival is a just celebration of one of the year’s most touching, energetic performances. As Aksel, Danielsen Lie puts forward a hilariously specific portrait of a 21st-century scoundrel, inviting us to see the humor in Aksel’s self-centering worldview and pretentious edge. But the character’s depth, tenderness, and resistance to anything resembling caricature keep Aksel from feeling one-dimensional.
Divided into twelve chapters, a prologue, and an epilogue, The Worst Person in the World‘s tightly structured format often threatens to contradict the freewheeling spirit of its lead. The staccato nature of the film’s structure enables sudden, but never jarring, shifts in temperament. But for a story about indecision and shape-shifting perhaps this is appropriate. That said, it’s worth noting that these abrupt pivots produce some pacing issues in the film’s third act. During the film’s final chapters, the story grinds to a languid halt as Julie finds her own sense of stillness. While it may be thematically sound, the conclusion’s slower pace means losing some of the vibrant pep that makes the film so special.
All told, the episodic format (as well as Trier and Vogt’s buffet of narrative techniques) does more good than harm; permitting time jumps and tonal shifts that accurately convey Julie’s restless navigation of love, self, and loss.
The Worst Person in the World conjures an infectious energy and kineticism often lacking from more stern-faced takes on the traditional romantic comedy. Likewise, the film enjoys certain fantastical creative liberties too often jettisoned in the name of naturalistic drama. Very few films are able to pull off such a tonal paradox. But by embracing messiness and contradiction with open arms, Trier manages to craft a traditional coming-of-age rom-com that evades the restrictive trappings of its genre.
Plenty of films have tackled the process of trying to feel grown-up after you’ve already “grown up.” With an empathetic deftness and an unparalleled grip on character, Trier brings a much-needed freshness, empathy, and specificity to the typically misjudged and sloppily caricatured concept of millennial malaise. Propelled in multiple directions, Julie feels that she lacks the conviction or surety that constitutes a Good Person. She is by no means the worst person in the world, but she does feel that she has failed to find her sense of personhood and place in a world that demands such things.
It’s a restless state of being that finds its equal opposite in the paralysis-stricken Eivind. It’s a response familiar to young adults living in the shadow of the climate crisis; a sense that every little action has to be weighed against a greater cause. The film gently underlines the hard truth at the heart of Eivind’s contrition. Namely: that there is something ultimately self-centering about this kind of constant contrition. A failure to compost doesn’t make you the worst person in the world. But the feeling that moving the slightest muscle will result in moral failure is, as the film rightly observes, a very real thing.
The Worst Person in the World is an impressively vibrant, vulnerable, and refreshingly emotionally intelligent romantic comedy. This is an intimate character study that balances its critiques and fondness for its subject in equal measure. It will make you want to watch more of Joachim Trier’s work if you haven’t already. In a crowded genre space that often misses the mark, The Worst Person in the World is wise, sensitive, and easily the best in its class.