Until recent years, romantic comedies used to be reliable crowd-pleasers. Yet, outside of a few notable standouts like The Big Sick or Frances Ha or Silver Linings Playbook, the past decade has been a wasteland for the once-dependable genre. Rom-coms haven’t died so much as atrophied; a tired pile of old tropes and fairy tales played out by pretty people who fight and flirt and invariably make it work by the third act. But just when you think the tried and trusted formula is finally done and dusted, 2022 comes along with a pair of rousing masterpieces to reinvigorate the waning genre.
First came Paul Thomas Anderson’s absolutely buoyant 1970s nostalgia-trip, Licorice Pizza, starring Alana Haim and (Philip Seymour Hoffman’s son) Cooper Hoffman. Now comes a new instant classic of the genre from acclaimed Norwegian auteur Joachim Trier (Oslo, August 31st). His latest film is a modern twist on a classically constructed character portrait of contemporary life in Oslo. Chronicling four years in the life of Julie (a star-making performance from Cannes Best Actress winner Renate Reinsve), The Worst Person in the World examines one young woman’s quest for love and meaning in the modern world.
Fluidly told in twelve chapters, bookended by a prologue and epilogue, this film is a finely-tuned character study that doubles as an empathetic essay on the millennial condition. We learn early on that 20-something Julie is a flaky mess burdened by indecision. She begins as an A+ medical student, before deciding that psychology is her calling. After she pursues that for a time, she decides to reinvent herself as a photographer. Shortly thereafter, she concludes that her passion is as a writer. Similarly, her romantic relationships are determined (seemingly) by whims and phases. She’s a character in flux, perhaps insufferable in other hands, but relatably endearing when helmed by Reinsve’s nuanced performance.
Julie’s biggest fear appears to be a future set in stone, in which her decisions will define an irreversible roadmap. As commitment-phobic as she is, she does fall for a Gen X comic-book artist named Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie). She’s charmed by his older-man surety and his certainty of how they’re meant to be. However, roadblocks pop-up when he confesses that he wants kids while Julie doesn’t – at least not in the near-future. He argues that most people have kids without “sorting out” their lives first. But she wants to do something more with her life before kids. She can’t articulate what she wants to do, but it’s something. For all of Julie’s talk of not wanting to settle down, it’s her that’s stuck in her ways.
Enter Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), an alluring stranger she meets at a party in a sequence so perfectly choreographed it somehow manages to mimic the actual serotonin rush of falling for someone in real-time. Reinsve and Nordrum play out a delightful meet-cute that is the wittiest, most perverse take on that rom-com trope in years. In yet another bravura segment later on, in which love literally puts the entire universe on pause, Julie decides to leave a heartbroken Aksel. She finds Eivind, someone who doesn’t want kids either and also floats through his career without any foundations, ro be her perfect partner where she can be her “true” self without any unwanted external pressure. But does Julie really prefer someone who’s there to confirm her worldview or someone who can challenge her?
Whip-smart as she is, Julie is not unaware of her flaws. She knows she’s stuck in a rut, working as an assistant in a bookstore, waiting for inspiration to start her life’s next act. She even tries her hand at fiction, publishing a Cat Person-like #MeToo era short story that goes mildly viral. Though it is another character altogether who refers to themselves as The Worst Person in the World, the title encapsulates how Julie beats herself up over failings and errors that are nothing more or less than human.
When asked once again about having kids, Julie admits that she isn’t just not ready, she’s unconvinced she’ll ever want to be ready. “What has to happen first?” Aksel asks her in frustration. “I don’t know. I need to do more first.” Most millennial adults, still waiting for that official certification of adulthood, will wince in recognition. What is the mark of a grownup? Is it having a baby? Buying a house? Do you have to truly know yourself? Can you ever? In essaying Julie, a character at once watery and opaque, shaped by everything around her but vocally resistant to influence, Reinsve has a tricky assignment that she nails with remarkable fluidity and grace. She’s the same inconstant person from one chapter to the next, maturing and receding in alternate stages, sympathetic despite (or because of) her willful irresolution.
Outside it’s non-judgemental exploration of millennial anxiety, the film also presents many sharply insightful segues into discussions of contemporary society. From Aksel’s provocative and offensive comics running afoul of new-wave Gen Z feminists (they’re also hilariously adapated into a G-rated cartoon for kids, sans his satirical commentary), to the performative wokeness of Eivind’s ex – The Worst Person in the World tackles some very tricky discussions with uncanny humour, eye-opening sensitivity, and finally, with heartbreaking frankness. Julie’s climatic discussion with Aksel where he admits to his own existential insecurities, and fears for a future that won’t include him might be the most moving scene of the year.
This is a film that doesn’t seek to make declarative statements about what is right or wrong in the world today (go watch an Aaron Sorkin or Adam McKay movie for that), it just honestly portrays the human experience of navigating an uncertain world with uncommon empathy. Its opening quirky comedy routines give way to something much richer – a startlingly observant and poignant view of millennial culture and how life comes at you fast. The Worst Person in the World vibrates with real life – it’s a film so fresh and untethered to rom-com cliché it might actually reshape your conception of what rom-coms can be.
The Worst Person in the World opens exclusively at The Projector on 24th February.