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Review: Finding yourself in ‘The Worst Person in the World’

February 2, 2022 GMT
This image released by Neon shows Renate Reinsve in a scene from "The Worst Person in the World." (Kasper Tuxen/Neon via AP)
This image released by Neon shows Renate Reinsve in a scene from "The Worst Person in the World." (Kasper Tuxen/Neon via AP)
This image released by Neon shows Renate Reinsve in a scene from "The Worst Person in the World." (Kasper Tuxen/Neon via AP)
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This image released by Neon shows Renate Reinsve in a scene from "The Worst Person in the World." (Kasper Tuxen/Neon via AP)
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This image released by Neon shows Renate Reinsve in a scene from "The Worst Person in the World." (Kasper Tuxen/Neon via AP)

There is a fallacy of youthful restlessness that’s easy to forget when it’s mostly in the rearview mirror: It’s possible to both not know what you want while also being pretty sure of what you don’t. Becoming who you are isn’t some coherent, linear path with a definitive ending that comes in the form of finding the right person or the right job, getting married or having a baby, no matter what romantic comedies would like you to believe. It’s a chaotic and messy process of elimination with casualties big and small.

At 29 going on 30, Julie, the woman at the heart of Joachim Trier’s “ The Worst Person in the World,” is in the thick of this unrest though neither she nor we know this when we get our first glimpse of her smoking in a black slip dress alone at the edge of a party. Played by the beguiling Renate Reinsve, Julie is the picture of cool glamour, her hair tied back in a casually elegant ponytail. It almost looks like the end to something. We’ll soon come to find that it is, but not in any way we’ve been conditioned to expect. This moment actually happens relatively early in the film, which is playfully structed in 12 chapters with a prologue and epilogue.

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Julie has already made some big decisions by the time we drop in on her life — she’s gone from studying medicine to psychology to photography, left a serious boyfriend, taken up with a professor and had some flings, sporting a variety of hair and clothing styles in the process. It’s amusing watching her try on different versions of herself. But things slow down a bit when she meets and connects with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic book artist in his mid-40s.

After a night together, he tells her they shouldn’t go on, that their age difference will become a problem, that he’s entered a new phase in his life and she still has to find herself. Only hurt awaits them, he explains. So naturally she falls in love with him and is soon claiming closets and bookshelves for herself in his apartment as “The Way You Look Tonight” plays happily in the background. For a time, this feels like life — she gets a job in a bookstore and writes a piece that does well online — but something, she feels, isn’t right.

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There is a refreshing honesty in this script, penned by Trier and his longtime collaborator Eskil Vogt, that engages with nuance and the impossible complexities of life in a way that most “rom-coms” avoid like the plague. We can see clearly that Aksel was right at the beginning. We can also understand why they continue on even beyond the logical end to their story, like when they find they’re at an impasse not just on the topic of children but even the reality of spending weekends away with his friends who have them. To her, having a baby signals the end of something that she’s not ready for. To him, it’s a new beginning. They’re both right and they’re both wrong. And because life is messy, it’s in this crisis that she crashes a party, meets Eivind (Herbert Nordrum) and is reminded that life and interesting strangers exist outside of her comfortable, contained world with Aksel.

This party, a gross on paper but awfully charming in execution “meet-cute” in which Julie and Eivind spend a night not cheating on their significant others, is one of several especially inspired sequences in “The Worst Person in the World.” Another is the much talked about time stop scene where Julie jogs through a paused Oslo. But this isn’t simply the Norwegian “Frances Ha,” which is not at all a dig. The film has surprises yet, including a particularly devastating scene in a park with Aksel, long after they’ve broken up, in which he reflects on his four and a half decades.

Perhaps one of the loveliest things about this film, which could have been rather niche, is just how universally loved it has become — everyone, it seems, can see themselves in “The Worst Person in the World,” whether your 20s are a distant memory or not. It’s a reminder of the power of cinema that even a smallish film from Norway without any “movie stars” or franchise possibilities can still break through the noise.

The film itself does have an end, by the way, and a satisfying one at that. But it’s also not a conclusion. Just seemed important to note.

“The Worst Person in the World,” a Neon release in theaters Friday, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and some language.” Running time: 128 minutes. Four stars out of four.

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MPAA Definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Follow AP Film Writer Lindsey Bahr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ldbahr