When The Graduate celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2017, retrospectives positioned it as the definitive Boomer movie. As film historian Mark Harris argues in his history of 1967’s Oscar nominees, what made the film such a convincing portrait of Boomer alienation was the critical distance director Mike Nichols and writer Buck Henry brought to the sex comedy of manners by virtue of their late-thirties outlook, a perspective that refused to make Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock a martyr but demonstrated a keen awareness of the plastic California culture that spawned him. Elder millennials have already reached the age of Nichols and Henry, but none have provided a generational statement on par with their predecessors, a conundrum on which we recently riffed. However, as Norwegian Gen-X director Joachim Trier proves with his recent arthouse hit The Worst Person in the World, the outsider perspective that turned The Graduate into such a seminal film remains crucial to examining the conflicts and contradictions of beleaguered generations whose drive to change the world rests on a narcissistic foundation.
Marketed as an anti-romcom, Worst Person more accurately represents a wistful and self-deprecating character study of a millennial woman promised the charmed life, but unable to acknowledge her culpability in her always almost existence. On the verge of turning thirty, Julie (Renate Reinsve) spends her days avoiding work at a bookstore as she tries to find a more fixed identity for herself than aspiring Oslo hipster. A dedicated feminist, she uses her natural charm to start a relationship with Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a Gen-X celebrity graphic novelist whose legacy as the creator of a garish and hypersexual anthropomorphic bobcat is under attack both by a movie studio neutering it for mass appeal and from the delicate sensibilities of his successors who would rather cancel him than interrogate why his work so provokes them. In a moment of self-loathing after a release party for Aksel’s new book, Julie meets the dimwitted yet sincere barista Elvind (Herbert Nordrum) with whom she slowly begins a relationship that seems less spawned by boredom than panic that she will never make the same mark on the world as her more successful partner.
While the film’s narrative often threatens to devolve into navel-gazing, Trier’s anthropological treatment of his characters provides it with a refreshing complexity. Julie has real feelings for Aksel, but his financial security and access to Oslo’s cultural elite leave her with precarious delusions that she is more accomplished than she actually is. Likewise, Aksel’s devotion to Julie seems equally genuine and proof to himself that he can remain physically and intellectually appealing to the generation trying so hard to exterminate his world–a fear Lie beautifully lays bare in a monologue on how physical media shape a relationship to art lost in the on-demand nature of the digital landscape. Julie’s need to be seen as special reeks of entitlement, especially her viral blog post on oral sex in the age of #MeToo that serves as her career peak and a cogent statement of the contradictions millennials are too self-obsessed to acknowledge. Again, Aksel provides a compromised counterpoint to this worldview, both encouraging Julie’s ambitions while later displacing his anger over their break up during an on-air skirmish with a twentysomething feminist radio host who dares deem his art misogynistic in what is both the film’s most rousing scene and a pitch-perfect takedown of everything wrong with culture criticism in the age of Buzzfeed.
However, Trier is never content merely to lampoon Julie’s often ridiculous behavior, much more concerned with creating a compelling world that contextualizes her perpetual ennui, including scenes centered on her doting mother and remarried family man of a father who can never muster more than a cursory interest in his biological daughter. The result is a movie that fully acknowledges both the harm Julie’s perpetual angst has wrought on her potential and the self-destructive behavior that curtails her advancement, a conflict Trier underscores with the type of brief magical-realist interludes one would expect plagued millennial idol Lizzie McGuire’s psyche after she graduated from the Disney Channel.
Eventually, Julie does grow up, embracing the sound of settling after a heartbreaking ending that revitalizes an easy melodramatic trope with grace and depth. Nearly two decades after he began his career, Trier is also finally coming into his own. He may have missed his chance to become the voice of his generation, but he’s found a place as an unparalleled chronicler of a generation much more in need of an authentic voice.
In select theatres and available for digital rental.