Is it possible to make a coming-of-age film about a grown woman? Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31; Thelma) achieves just that in The Worst Person in the World, a beautifully poignant story with a protagonist at its center who’s doing her damn best to live up to the film’s title in her own subtle, immature ways. A contemporary relationship drama that spans four years in the life of 29-year-old Julia (Renate Reinsve), Trier (with co-writer Eksil Vogt) creates a narrative that’s as relatable as it is cringey, as every bad decision Julia makes is as familiar as it is reprehensible. Looking towards the end of her twenties with dread, Julia falls into a mostly comfortable and, from the outside looking in, enviable relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). They’re on the same page about quite a lot, but when it comes to fundamentals like their future together and the children they will or won’t have, they’re about as far apart as high noon and midnight. In an early scene, the two head to a family lake house for a weekend away, relegated to a small guest room with bunk beds since they’re the only couple there without kids. The fight sparked because of it is equal parts biting and mundane; Julia keeps asking if they can stop talking about it, Aksel wants to get to the bottom of their conflict.
A chance encounter at a party one night results in perhaps the most sensual scenes in any film this year, even though not a single romantic gesture is exchanged. Julia is very careful about this; as deeply attractive as she finds this mystery man, she won’t cheat on Aksel. So instead, the two share one of those magical nights of connection where you can say anything or do anything and still be infinitely intriguing to (and intrigued by) the other person. It almost doesn’t matter what happens between them after they part ways, but Trier isn’t done with us (or them) yet. Soon, Julia’s relationship with Aksel is on the rocks and again, their breakup is so well written it’s as if we’re watching a documentary; anyone who’s ended a long-term relationship will recognize themselves in their painful back and forth (and even the break-up sex).
A film like this depends on a strong lead performance, and Reinsve more than delivers, creating a character as much in conflict with herself as she is the men in her life. But it’s all with a breezy, seemingly unearned confidence, one that only seems to be shaken when she’s forced to confront just what she’s doing with her life (which is, in this case, fairly often). By the third act, when tragedy strikes a bit too close to home, it’s as if we watch Julia mature right before our eyes. She’s still not always capable of making the best decisions for herself or those around her, but she’s learning that life doesn’t always care about that, charging ahead for better or worse, with or without us.
The Worst Person in the World is now in theaters.
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