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Friday, April 19, 2024
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‘The Worst Person In The World:’ A story of how the boundaries we draw come to define us

The 2021 Oscar nominee is a refreshingly modern tale of life and love.

Released in 2021 by Norwegian director Joachim Trier, “The Worst Person In The World” chronicles four years of a young woman’s life as she moves between jobs, lovers and aspirations.

The film opens with medical student Julie (Renate Reinsve) abruptly switching her focus to psychology upon realizing her passion lies in the mind rather than the body. Less than two minutes of screen time later, she becomes unhappy and pivots again to photography. Soon after, she dabbles in writing and publishes a story titled “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo.”

This cycle of career changes serves as a microcosm for the film as a whole. Throughout the film, Julie lives under a certain set of boundaries. She eventually feels trapped by said boundaries and moves on to something new. That something new inevitably becomes as monotonous as what came before, and she yearns to break free once again. Julie’s resistance to boundaries leaves her unable to commit to any one thing.

This phenomenon is perhaps felt most strongly as Julie moves between her two primary love interests in the film. The first is Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), an older man whom she falls in with immediately after he expresses he is too old for her. She finds the relationship exciting at first, despite chafing at Aksel’s want for children. 

Walking home one night, Julie crashes a party where she meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), a barista her age. Throughout the course of the night, Eivind — who has a girlfriend — and Julie are explicit in their adherence to the boundary of “not cheating.” They flirt, dance and even smell each other’s armpits, but playfully refuse to take things any further. They part ways in the morning without exchanging contact information. 

Eventually — and perhaps predictably — they run into each other again and soon leave their restrictive partners for one another. The cycle begins anew with passionate and drug-infused nights that gradually give way to anxieties and disagreements. From there, the film deftly moves between the comedic and the dramatic as it builds towards a poignant ending that isn’t quite a sucker punch, but is far from an inevitable conclusion. 

The dramedy about the free-spirited 20-or-30-something who feels like a “spectator in their own life” is hardly a novel genre. Such films usually center around an external struggle: a character trying either to conform to their surroundings or to make their surroundings conform to them. 

In “The Worst Person In The World,” however, Julie’s primary struggle is internal. Her resistance to a conventional, “boring” life makes Julie feel there is something inadequate about her. There is a naive self-frustration in each decision she makes to uproot her life. She feels she should be able to passively accept a certain set of boundaries: to commit to one thing and stick with it. 

The film is ultimately about Julie’s journey of learning that it’s okay for her to take agency in her life and decide what she wants and doesn’t want, provided she does the work to self-reflect on what that is.

The film is anchored by a fantastically layered performance from star Renate Reinsve, who won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Reinsve repeatedly elevates normal conversations or simple walks from place to place with the slightest, most subtle expressions revealing her conflicted feelings underneath. She feels confined: yearning for something different but never wanting to admit it to anyone else — or to herself. 

It’s these moments that make the times she finally does voice her frustrations all the more resonant. Despite her decisions appearing sudden to the characters around her, the observant watcher can see how small moments slowly percolate for her until they boil over to a point of unbearability. 

It’s hard to call a film with two Academy Award nominations underrated. It’s more accurate to say the film is under-watched, at least in many circles. 

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Far from a stuffy foreign film restricted to cinephile appeal, Trier’s story of Julie, the young woman trying to overcome her self-defeating patterns, is an accessible and modern take on the character-driven young adult romance. Contemporary elements of social media, social justice and self-awareness are woven in authentically without falling into the trap of becoming the primary focus. Instead, they underscore the film’s seemingly rare competence in telling a story of life and love in the 2020s.

“The Worst Person In The World” shows us that in a world where boundaries in life are inescapable, the best thing we can do is choose them before they are chosen for us.

Grade: A-

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