The Worst Person in the World is the coming-of-age film for our times
Exclusive: The director and star of the Oscar-nominated film share what the film can tell you about your 20s, and why it's OK to not have it all figured out.
Your 20s are the decade of the unknown – a period of trial and error in self-discovery, attempted navigation of a career, of toying with love. It’s a time where life’s big questions come into the forefront, but the answers are often vague and indistinguishable. Do you choose the path less trodden, or that paved by societal pressure and expectation?
The Worst Person in the World, a film by prolific Norwegian director Joachim Trier, takes those timely anxieties and churns out a relatable response. It’s a gritty, personable film that boldly confirms: “It’s OK to not know where you’re going.”
The film follows Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), a charming young woman who lives in Oslo and ventures into her 20s armed with the arrogance of intelligence and youthful beauty. Quickly finding herself disenchanted with the expectations of adulthood, she drops out of medical school and works in a bookshop.
Soon, Julie falls in love with a respected, successful professor named Aksel who she begins to create a life with – only to have everything disrupted when she gatecrashes a wedding and meets Eivind, a barista.
At its core the film is a love-letter to being in your 20s, a celebration of those tumultuous years and of venturing unashamedly into the unknown. And so it seems fitting to kick things off by asking Trier (46) and Reinsve (34) about their own experience of that period in their lives when we first sit down to discuss their Oscar-nominated movie.
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"I still think I’m 20, that’s my problem," laughs Trier. "I have too good a memory. I wish I could forget certain things. In my 20s I was obsessed with wanting to make movies. I moved to London when I was 23 and spent most of my 20s there.
"I moved back to Oslo to make my first feature film when I was 30. I also thought I had experienced the love of my life – and she left me heartbroken. My 20s was learning about a lot of good things and learning a little about pain."
Career ambition and heartbreak are similar tropes of Renate Reinsve’s 20s.
“I wanted to be an actress," she says. "I threw away all my books except for the plays and the books on acting. I thought, ‘I’m going to do it’. I got into acting school. I fell in love with someone that went there – I thought it was going to be the love of my life. When we split up a few years later, I thought, ‘This will be the end of me’.”
Trier adds: “We really had a tough couple of years at the end of our 20s.”
The film may be categorised as a romantic-comedy but it feels overwhelmingly like a Bildungsroman, a genre stereotypically dedicated to teenage years. By updating these tropes, The Worst Person in the World is an homage to coming-of-age later in life. It quietly screams – you do not need to know who you are by the time you turn 30. We don’t stop on our journey of self-discovery.
“I asked myself the question, ‘Why isn’t it equally relevant today to make a coming-of-age film about someone turning 30 as it would have been 20 years ago to make a Bildungsroman about someone turning 19?’,” Trier considers.
“Are we a) completely incapable of growing up as a society and we still feel lost? That led me to my second conclusion b) maybe this is life. I worship, in our society, the yearning for freedom – the sense that you have a choice to take responsibility for your existence, your love life, having children or not having children, all that stuff.
"It’s tricky and it’s not easily resolved. I sympathise with Julie. She’s not an idiot. She’s smart but she just doesn’t know how to find her role in all of this. Maybe that’s an ongoing feeling that we [as a society] are admitting to more now.”
It is exactly this spectrum of choice that seems to plague those in their 20s and 30s. The existential question ‘have I made the right choice?’ is under constant consideration and dissection by those navigating early adulthood. But this film considers that venturing into the abyss might carry a beauty of its own.
Reinsve argues: “You feel so weak and lost throughout those years of not knowing and trying to figure stuff out. Looking back, I feel it’s actually a strong place to be. There’s strength in being open and honest that you’re trying to figure out what to do. I wish I knew that back then.”
The film plays with the musicality and joy of life, but also dances with sombre undertones – time passing, mortality, loss. Soren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher said: “We can only understand our lives backwards, but we’re forced to live it forward” – and that philosophy has evidently had an influence on the film’s narrative.
“I’ve always relied on Kierkegaard,” Reinsve affirms. “I don’t have to do big things in my life yet. In my 20s I felt, ‘I don’t have to be great now’. I have leaned into that – to not get panicked about not being something.”
Although, perhaps, that’s not entirely true. Not long ago, Reinsve toyed with leaving acting altogether, after feeling she wasn’t landing the roles that she had entered the field to play. The power of hindsight: the day she pledged to quit, Trier called to cast her as the lead in The Worst Person in the World.
“I wanted to do something with Renate for a long time after she had her one famous line in [my 2011 film] Oslo, August 31st – ‘let’s go to the party’,” says Trier. “I thought I owed Renate some more depth.
"I saw her in the theatre. No one had given her a lead part in a feature film, so I did. For obvious reasons now – everyone can see why I did it. She’s extraordinary.”
The role of Julie has radically changed Reinsve’s life, catapulting her into the global pop culture conversation. The film was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards and Reinsve collected the Best Actress award at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival. Given the chance, would she go back and tell her younger self what lay around the corner?
“The last time I was in London, it was for my 18th birthday,” Reinsve says. “On our flight over here, Joachim said, ‘I wish I could go back and say, ‘Hello Renate, you don’t know me – but we are going to get really close. You’re going to be in one of my movies and it’s going to be a big journey and everything is going to be OK.’ If that had happened, I wouldn’t have believed him.”
Joachim intersects: “You also added, if I may... ‘then all the good things in my life wouldn’t have happened’. You have to go through them. I think that’s the clue.”
“That’s true,” Reinsve confirms. “I wouldn’t be the person I am today.”
The Worst Person in the World is a striking film title – it’s a translation of the Norwegian “Verdens Verste Menneske”, a saying that is used when someone feels they have failed on a personal level, when they haven’t lived up to an expectation. For Reinsve, what do you think the film tells us about ourselves and about love?
“We had so many conversations about the complexity of being in a relationship," she says. "You think you should have one clear emotion. Going into a relationship you think, ‘this is love; this should work’. But then shame, things you don’t like about yourself as a person, things you have to deal with start to surface.
"Most stuff in life, at some level, is pointless and meaningless. But, you also have the great: love, career or something big in your life, be it a child or marriage or great experiences. But you are always in jeopardy of losing them.
"I learned from this movie that it’s OK to feel those things. It’s OK to be the worst person in the world and hurt people to choose yourself first."