An entertaining and perceptive look at an unsettled young woman, The Worst Person in the World owes much of its success to Norwegian actress Renate Reinsve. In a performance that's vibrant and smart, Reinsve portrays Julie, an engaging shape-shifter of a woman who turns 30 about midway through the movie.
Like many people her age, Julie isn't sure what she wants to do with her life. She begins the movie as a medical student, transfers to psychology, and later decides that she has heard yet another professional call. She'll be a photographer.
She winds up taking pictures but also works in a book store.
As the movie, develops — in 12 chapters directed by Joachim Trier from a script he co-wrote with Eskil Vogt — Julie tries on different poses, attitudes, and men.
At times, Trier employs a narrator to tell Julie's story. His musical choices accompany a variety of Julie's shifting moods -- from jazz to funky dance music to Art Garfunkel.
Although Julie is working out her feelings about lots of things, she's never less than an independent woman, a fully realized character even in her uncertainty. Men become a focal point in Julie's journey but she remains at the center of her story.
The Worst Person in the World finds Julie in two major relationships, the principal one being with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), an author of graphic novels.
A decade older than Julie, Askel cautions at the outset that the relationship won't work. He's ready to settle down. She isn't.
It’s instructive that Julie cites Aksel’s doom-struck declaration as the reason she falls in love with him. She’s obviously not loading the romantic deck in her favor. She's not looking for smooth sailing.
The movie deals with issues ranging from infidelity, absentee fathers, the environment, and insecurities about the possibility of becoming a parent. Julie’s father (Vidar Sandem) has remarried and wants little to do with his grown daughter.
But Trier isn't drawing straight lines between Julie's past and her current confusions. He's not interested in simplifying.
Eivend (Herbert Nordrum), a barista who reveals himself as a decent sort, becomes Julie’s second major relationship. He, too, seems prepared for more than Julie is willing to give.
There's overlap here because Julie's relationship with Eivend begins before she breaks up with Aksel.
In the wrong hands, The Worst Person in the World easily could have been weightless. But Trier deepens the story, giving it a sad twist toward the end.
If expanded thematically, The Worst Person in the World suggests how difficult it is for Julie and some of her contemporaries to envision a future. They're not ready to follow a standard map: the grind of work, an arduous marriage, and irksome children. But they have no alternative plan, either.
They're wary of closing any doors, an inevitable consequence of choosing a path or even stumbling onto one.
Unlike many movies with a bit of rom-com plasma in their bloodstreams, the characters in Trier's movie seem like real people living real lives during moments of transition. They don't always do the right thing. Sometimes they try. Sometimes they don't.
Perhaps that explains the movie's exaggerated title: Julie's living through a moment when she feels that she may not be doing anything right or accomplishing anything significant -- or anything all.
Does Julie reach a moment of great realization?
Maybe, but whether she does or not, Trier paints a smart, amusing portrait of a woman who has yet to determine who she really wants to be. You get the feeling that she's definitely not alone.