Julie (Renate Reinsve) is a smart Norwegian med school student in her late 20s who looks as much like Dakota Johnson as Dakota Johnson ever has. Director Joaquin Trier underscores her allure as we first meet her, poised on a balcony above downtown Oslo in a backless cocktail dress, so strongly that he even racks focus on the city behind her until it’s just a blur. She has the world at her feet, and the rat-a-tat narration can hardly keep up with her roiling sense of youthful possibility. But as anyone who’s ever wasted an hour aimlessly scrolling through Netflix knows all too well, having too many options can keep you from committing to any one of them; the bigger the menu, the harder it is to feel like you ordered the right meal.
Realizing that her passion is for the mind instead of the body, Julie ditches medicine for psychology and dumps her blindsided doctor boyfriend (prognosis negative). A few seconds of film time and a fling with her professor later — his body arousing a greater passion in her than his mind — Julie decides that she’s actually destined to be a photographer instead. New trysts. A different scene. More ways to become the perfect vessel for an older male filmmaker who envies Julie’s capriciousness and sexual availability enough to cast her in a thoroughly adult coming-of-age story about the virtues of committing to something, even if only to oneself. Needless to say, you’ve seen this movie before. It probably starred Greta Gerwig. But writer-director Joachim Trier can live with that; “The Worst Person in the World” is subtitled “Julie (in 12 Chapters),” and we still haven’t left the prologue.
A sharp and entrancing pivot back to the restless films he once made about beautiful young people suffering from the vertigo of time moving through them (“Reprise” and “Oslo, August 31” being the first two parts of the loose thematic trilogy that led us here), Trier’s latest film embraces the idea that originality might be a touch overrated. In fact, Julie’s life could even be seen as a cautionary tale about the perils of waiting to become the unique flowers we’re all promised to blossom into one day, even if it understands that some lessons can only be learned the hard way. “When was life supposed to start?” asks the narrator on Julie’s behalf, her rhetorical question belying the obvious fact that it already has.
If Julie is less of a character than a vividly realized archetype, Reinsve didn’t get the message. The flush-cheeked actress (who Trier fans may recognize from her small part in “Oslo”) steps into her first major role with a careful mix of forcefulness and frustration; Reinsve’s performance believably renders Julie smart enough to become anything she wants, but also naive enough to feel blindsided by the realization that she’ll eventually have to choose what that will be. Her Julie is so easy to root for, and yet when Trier and his co-writer Eskil Vogt confront how badly people can treat each other as they scramble to make the best of themselves, Reinsve ensures that “The Worst Person in the World” delivers on its ironic wink of a title.
Quick, vibrant, pulsing with all sorts of crossover appeal until a slightly moribund energy takes hold toward the end, Trier’s film is never more fun than when Julie is second-guessing herself and/or trying to keep time from slipping through her fingers. The first thing she does is shack up with Aksel (Trier mainstay Anders Danielsen Lie), a 44-year-old cartoonist whose underground success frees her to work in a bookstore while she waits for inspiration to strike. But Aksel’s desire to have children provides a ticking clock of its own, and Julie soon finds herself with at least one eye on the exit.
Initially it seems as if something productive might come from that panic. Julie begins to write, and her pieces enjoy moderate viral success; none more so than “Oral Sex in the Age of #MeToo,” which represents one of the all too rare moments when the film bothers to acknowledge the existence of the internet or meaningfully grapple with how vastly it broadened the opportunity to flirt with new jobs and fuck perfect strangers. Trier is seemingly reluctant to limit this movie as a product of its time, and his only clear insight into the existential crises of the 21st century is that people live a lot longer than they used to, which ups the stakes for the irreversible decisions they have to make along the way (a second chapter devoted to social media outrage only further underscores that shortsightedness).
Nevertheless, “The Worst Person in the World” also contends with time in other, more elemental ways. The fragmented nature of its literary structure allows us to feel the years slipping through Julie’s fingers, while the close-up focus of its best chapters puts isolated moments under a microscope to see how certain nights can echo for a lifetime. One such night begins with Julie walking home alone and spontaneously waltzing into a random party, where she partakes in a drawn-out meet-cute with a goofy barista named Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). How intimate can they get without cheating? It’s a dangerous game for someone with such an unrequited desire for the unknown.
Later, in a bravura sequence that should resonate with anyone who’s ever asked themselves “what if?,” time itself comes to a complete standstill across the whole of Oslo as Julie runs across the city from one man to the other. This is the ever-relatable fantasy at the heart of this movie: Choice without consequence. A life written in pencil. And “The Worst Person in the World” soars whenever it allows Julie to embrace such magical thinking and sort through the reality of it all for herself (Trier’s brooding “Thelma” was an outlier for him, but the dark genre exercise anticipated his somber flair for the supernatural).
It falters, however, when trying to shore up those lessons with a degree of finality, as the movie’s third act whittles easy morals from the existential morass of its circumstances and ends with such a whimper that you almost wish Julie would turn back into the hot mess she was at the beginning. Fortunately for Trier, he doesn’t need to stick the landing to get his point across. Julie might feel like the worst person in the world from time to time, and she might even make a few of her favorite people feel the same for a minute or two, but there’s really no better way for her to become someone she can live with, nor arrive at a place where she can be truly grateful about having the chance to do just that.
“The Worst Person in the World” premiered in Competition at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.