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'The Worst Person in the World' takes millennial angst to an exquisite new level

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic, Justin Chang, has a review of the new Norwegian film "The Worst Person In The World." Its star, Renate Reinsve, won the best actress prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and the film has been shortlisted for the Academy Award for best international feature. Here's Justin.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Two of the best movies I've seen in recent months have focused on the inner lives of restless, rudderless women in their 20s. You may have already seen "Licorice Pizza," in which Alana Haim's character tries to figure out what to do with her life and who to do it with. Now along comes the dazzling Norwegian dramedy "The Worst Person In The World" with an equally star-making turn by an actor named Renate Reinsve. It takes place in present-day Oslo, but its portrait of millennial angst is so moving and perceptive it could be set just about anywhere.

When we first meet Reinsve's character, Julie, she's a whirlwind of indecision. She's a top-notch medical student until she suddenly decides she wants to study psychology, then photography. She cycles through men just as impatiently, ditching one boyfriend after another in quick succession. And that's just the first 10 minutes. Soon, Julie falls for a successful graphic novelist in his 40s named Aksel, played by Anders Danielsen Lie, and moves in with him, at which point the movie settles into a sweetly romantic groove. But like Julie herself, it doesn't stay settled for long.

The director, Joachim Trier, and his regular writing partner Eskil Vogt give the movie a playfully novelistic structure, 12 chapters bookended by a prologue and an epilogue in an early chapter. Julie goes on vacation with Aksel and several of his married friends and is reminded of the age difference between them. Aksel wants to have kids, but Julie doesn't know if she does.

In the next chapter, after leaving Aksel behind at a party, Julie crashes a wedding and meets a man roughly her age named Eivind, played by Herbert Nordrum. Neither of them is single, and despite their mutual attraction, neither of them wants to cheat. What follows is one of the movie's richest, funniest sequences, a mix of gross-out humor and aching sensuality. It does something that too few romantic comedies manage, placing its heroine at a crossroads between two very different men you can't help but root for.

Eventually, Julie breaks up with Aksel and takes up with Eivind, but "The Worst Person In The World" is to bracingly honest to suggest that happily ever after is in the cards. Julie's upheaval continues. There are sudden tragedies and surprising reunions, plus one psychedelic dream sequence that dredges up her demons in a way that's a little too on the nose. We spend some time with Julie's divorced parents. Her mom is loving and supportive, but her dad is distant and doesn't seem to care much about her. Every chapter and every detail, even the ones that seem trivial or tossed off, add something to our understanding of who Julie is and who she might become.

This is hardly the first movie Trier has made about the emotional and existential crises of young people. He was in his 30s when he made "Reprise," his dazzling 2006 debut, and "Oslo, August 31st," a devastating portrait of addiction. Now he's made one of his best films with "The Worst Person In The World." At 47, he may be removed from Julie's generation, but his empathy still shines through. At first glance, the distracted commitment-phobic Julie may seem to embody some stereotypes about people her age, but Trier doesn't reduce her to those assumptions. If anything, he's just as hard on the foibles of his own generation. In a way, Aksel serves as the director's stand-in. He's an artist trying to make sense of Julie and coming to a newfound appreciation of her despite their differences.

Anders Danielsen Lie, who's worked with Trier twice before, recently won Best Supporting Actor from the National Society of Film Critics for his quietly heartbreaking performance as Aksel. Still, the movie unquestionably belongs to Renate Reinsve. She nails Julie's every shift in mood and perspective. And she has a gift for cluing us into what Julie's thinking, even when she's saying nothing.

The title of the movie is a bit deceptive. Nobody ever calls Julie the worst person in the world, but you suspect that's how she thinks of herself when she considers the mistakes she's made and the people she's hurt. But by the end of this exquisitely funny and melancholy movie, Julie has learned to make peace with her decisions, including the ones she has yet to make. She may not be the easiest character to figure out, but she's awfully hard not to love.

DAVIES: Justin Chang is film critic for The LA Times. He reviewed "The Worst Person In The World," opening this week in theaters.

On Monday's show, Jonny Greenwood talks about two aspects of his music life as lead guitarist for the band Radiohead and as a composer of film scores. He wrote the scores for Paul Thomas Anderson's films "There Will Be Blood," "The Master," "Phantom Thread" and "Licorice Pizza," and scores for the new films "Power Of The Dog" and "Spencer." I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GREENWOOD'S "HOUSE OF WOODCOCK")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Al Banks. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.