Midway through “The Worst Person in the World,” everything stops. Everyone in the streets of Oslo is frozen in an instant. Pedestrians are suspended mid-stride, a couple passionately making out against a tree is stuck in stasis. Running gleefully amidst the stillness, with the widest carefree grin on her face, is Julie (Renate Reinsve), who would surely love for the passage of time to come to a halt for real if only so she could get a moment to figure out what she wants from her life. Detailing the thrills and fears of turning 30 down to its mundane but absorbing minutiae, Norwegian filmmaker Joachim Trier’s fifth feature is a pure delight. Laugh-out-loud funny and heartbreaking in equal measure, it’s perhaps his best film since “Oslo, August 31st.”
Unfolding in 12 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, Trier’s rich and lively character study gives Julie the storybook treatment. We are first introduced to the titular “worst person” during her time at university: she’s a dedicated straight-A student who starts med school, then switches to psychology when she realizes that she cares more about the mind than the body. Soon after, she decides her real passion is photography. When the world is laid out at your feet, it’s almost impossible to choose the path that’s right for you, and Julie is similarly restless when it comes to her relationships, flitting through flings with a professor and momentary hookups. Settling down is a milestone that she’s seemingly ill-fitted for.
The dozen episodes that populate this adult coming-of-age story are diverse, from an all-night tryst with a stranger at a party she wasn’t invited to, to an amusing interlude about an afternoon Julie spends writing a viral article about oral sex. Each chapter adds up to a vibrant portrait of Julie in these pivotal few years in her life where she comes into her own. “The Worst Person in the World” is giddy and joyful and oftentimes hilarious (which could come as a pleasant surprise considering Trier’s most recent films, though you cannot forget the similar electric exuberance of his debut, “Reprise.”), culminating in a pathos-filled finale that makes you realize how much you’ve fallen in love with every character. At the center is a dazzling performance by Renate Reinsve (a Scandi dead ringer of Dakota Johnson), who appeared in “Oslo, August 31st” but truly comes into her own as a lead, portraying Julie with the depth that makes her feel unfailingly human.
There are shades of Noah Baumbach’s “Frances Ha,” and indeed, Julie’s sprint down central Oslo radiates the same level of euphoria as Greta Gerwig’s run across New York City set to David Bowie. But Trier and frequent co-writer Eskil Vogt’s beautifully crafted screenplay takes care to form her as a fully realized individual with charisma, flaws, hopes, and dreams (though exactly what those are, she is still trying to decide).
Caught in Julie’s entrancing orbit is Aksel (played by Trier regular Anders Danielsen Lie), a 44-year-old comic book writer who’s famous in underground circles for his provocative graphic novel series. He tries to break up with her, explaining that they clearly want different things in life (for one, he wants kids; she does not), but Julie ignores the red flags and falls madly in love with him. Perhaps disillusioned by the solidity of their relationship, she seeks out Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who’s just as aimless and reckless as her. It’s a testament to how well-constructed the writing is that you don’t really root for one suitor over the other. Over time, you fully come to learn their complexities and contrasting dynamics with Julie, who grounds her, and who lets her run wild. She could end up with either man, or none, and you’d be happy for her no matter the outcome.
Plenty of films have explored the particular millennial struggle of impending adulthood, and if there’s anything to fault in “The Worst Person in the World,” it’s that we’ve seen variations of this story before. But growing up is and always will be a universal concern that nags at us until we can’t avoid it anymore. That eternal question of what it means to be an adult. It feels purposeful that Aksel’s latest graphic novel is titled “Ungdom” (the Norwegian word for “Youth”). Julie, Aksel, and Eivind alike are chasing a past that is escaping them, even attempting to manifest the halcyon days of a time gone by.
“I feel like a spectator in my own life,” Julie says at one point, admitting that she feels like the “supporting character” in her own story. The film’s title is laced with irony, deriving from Julie’s own self-deprecation. Uncertainty and lack of confidence occlude the reality standing right in front of her: she’s not the supporting character but a magnetic lead in this ebullient narrative. In fact, she feels like one of those cinematic protagonists that will be admired and adored by many for a long time. [B+]