Motherhood as a Question: ‘The Worst Person in the World’

When early reviews came out for Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person In the World (2021), I saw more than a few remarking that it was about the transition from your 20s to your 30s. Lead character Julie (the stunning and charismatic Renate Reinsve) spends the film dallying between professions, interests, and romantic partners. In the film’s prologue, we see her switching majors in college swiftly and impulsively. If something isn’t a fit, she simply slides into the following field that grabs her curiosity in a fleeting moment. And shouldn’t she enjoy this freedom of impermanence? We also see that Julie works part-time at a bookstore. She is fun, funny, and always curious. She doesn’t have any strict life goals for herself, milestones she thinks she should meet. Like so many other romantic comedies, she doesn’t bemoan her lack of marriage prospects. Julie doesn’t move from moment to moment with intention. She floats.

However, my take on the film was slightly different – I don’t think it is about the transition into your 30s. To start, the transition into one’s 30s means something different for every generation. If you told a 67-year-old that it’s about turning 30, they might look at you with a puzzling expression. Their 30 was different from your 30. That excludes how each experience of turning a milestone age changes depending on your demographic. I did feel a shift when I transitioned into my 30s, a feeling of being more grounded and self-assured, but that’s not what stood out to me with this film. To Julie, being 30 means, the possibility of motherhood looms over her in implicit and explicit ways. Julie wonders, is this who I am? Is this what I want? And most importantly, would I even be good at it? After all, she’s the worst person in the world (though not really, not by a long shot).

Renate Reinsve as Julie in The Worst Person in the World (COURTESY: NEON)

In Trier’s statement for the film, he said he wanted to make a film about love, “one that goes a bit deeper than normal onscreen love stories, where everything is so simple, the stories so clear-cut, the feelings so admirably unambiguous.” Further, Trier states:

“A film that will look seriously at the difficulties of meeting someone when you’re struggling to figure out your own life; at how irresolute and uncertain even the most rational and otherwise self-confident people can become when they fall in love…”

For a different generation, the film feels like Annie Hall in its lighter moments. In other moments, the heartbreak is reminiscent of Blue Valentine. It’s hard to overlook that the film’s central conflict really begins in Chapter 1, ‘The Others’. Julie has settled down with 44-year-old Aksel (Anders Danielsen Lie), a comic book artist known for his underground comic book series Bobcat (not unlike Fritz the Cat). Aksel quietly spends most of his time at his drawing board, punk rock in his headphones. After they first meet and have sex, Aksel brings up their age difference. He says it will eventually drive them apart, and they shouldn’t see each other anymore. She leaves his apartment forlorn. But it doesn’t matter. So what. It feels good, and it feels right. Fuck it. Julie immediately turns around, and in the next scene, she and Aksel move in together.

But there’s ‘The Others’. Julie doesn’t seem to have any friends of her own, but Aksel does have friends, and they’re all about his age. During a weekend getaway, Julie and Aksel stay with Aksel’s friends, who include a married couple with kids. Visibly older and more distressed, the parents try to relate to Julie, who is young, glamorous, and aloof, but they don’t know how. A simple way to ease into human interactions and make new friends is to ask people about their likes and interests. Instead, Aksel’s friends ask intrusive questions about her career plans and whether any of her friends have kids yet. They only take an interest in her if they can see her as one of them. When Julie and Aksel find out their room is the size of a closet with a bunk bed, Julie remarks with a laugh, “We get this room because we’re childless.” Later, Julie and Aksel get into an argument, which is amplified by the small size of their room. Aksel argues that she should play more with the kids (so what does that make Julie, Aksel? A mother, or another child?). Then, the possibility of Aksel and Julie having kids together comes up. It’s more on his mind because he is older. Julie tells him that she wants kids too, but not now. She’s almost 30, he argues. That’s a good age to start a family. Their tense conversation is put to the side later that night as the adults are drunkenly dancing and the husband of the married couple joyously lifts his wife into the air, crashing her head into a drop light. Aksel holds Julie in the bottom bunk as they listen to the couple fighting in the next room. Jokingly, Julie says, “should we have a baby?” They laugh. It’s easy to use humor to break the tension and abandon a sensitive topic.

Renate Reinsve as Julie & Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel inThe Worst Person in the World (COURTESY: NEON)

There is some merit to being surprised by what happens in a film, so I will try to be vague about specific details of the film’s plot. But Julie wouldn’t be the Worst Person if she and Aksel simply lived happily ever after, and it wouldn’t make for much of a film, either. In Chapter 2, ‘Cheating’, Julie grows bored with Aksel and the steady life he promises, and she gets distracted by a shiny new thing, the young and gawky Eivind (Herbert Nordrum). Like Julie, he’s not interested in kids, but it’s for environmental reasons; climate change, carbon footprints, etc. He’s relatively simple. But the kid question still looms. It’s not lost on her that, during her 30th birthday, the women in her family, starting with her mom and going back several generations, had all had kids by the time they turned 30. In Chapter 8, ‘Julie’s Narcissistic Circus’, Julie trips on mushrooms and imagines her body as old and sagging, a child nursing at her breast. Aksel told her she would make a good mother when they talked about kids. If you want to be a mom, being told you’ll be a good mother feels really good. Those are words you will replay in your head when you need comfort. But if you don’t want to be a mother, being told you’d make a good one doesn’t mean anything. It’s like saying you’re a good person, but you’d also be a good type of person.

Turning 30 (or thereabouts) does shift your perspective of how you see your parents. While the film doesn’t go much into Julie’s relationship with her mom, we piece together many things from Julie’s one scene with her dad (Vidar Sandem). Julie’s mom and dad are divorced, and Julie’s dad has since remarried and has a teenage daughter. In Chapter 4, ‘Our Own Family’, the first time Julie’s dad speaks, he’s talking about himself and his prostate. And that’s the only thing he talks about – himself. Suspiciously, he was just at a soccer game for his teenage daughter but could not attend Julie’s birthday due to some excuse regarding his painkillers. He can’t visit where she lives, either – he jokes about how the parking in Oslo is too much to deal with. And perhaps the biggest sting of all, when Julie writes an article she’s proud of that gets published online, he mumbles his way through excuses as to why he couldn’t read it. There’s something wrong with the link, or his computer, or something. On the bus ride back to the city, Julie’s head on Aksel’s shoulder, he tells her they can make their own family. Turning 30 allows Julie to look at her relationship with her father more objectively. How does this person make me feel? Does having this person in my life make me feel happy? After seeing this person, do I leave with lightness or heaviness in my heart? This one scene implies a long string of disappointments from Julie’s father. Simply put, love for one’s child requires selflessness, and Julie’s father is selfish. While Julie wonders if she wants to be a mother, she looks to the models of family in her life, and they are lacking.

When it comes to the kid question, no matter what someone decides – if even such a conclusion is within their control – the thoughts of what could have been will remain. The rhetoric of grief used to be tied exclusively to someone dying, but we know now that there are other forms of grief. If you’re in a relationship with someone and that relationship ends, and you feel that confused feeling, like you’re not standing on solid ground – that’s grief. And there’s grief for a possibility. Not having children might come with the grief of having them. A yearning for those moments of warmth you see when a child runs into a parent’s arms. You saw it at a park one day, and it made you wonder, maybe that’s the missing piece. Or, if you have children, you might feel grief for your previous life. Sometimes I think, this is so hard; everything is hard all of the time. I wish I could go back to when my biggest problem was not getting cast in a play. And if you have kids, there can be feelings of grief that come with deciding to stop at X number of kids. And similar questions and cycles of this nature will continue. This isn’t taking into account several other circumstances that are involved: trauma, mental illness, lack of support, lack of financial resources, and physical conditions, among many others. If you become a mom, you’re celebrated. You’re part of a new culture, or more accurately, a club. The club has jargon and acronyms, and specific products and practices. And if you don’t become a mom, people want to wonder why. They assume there’s a story there. No one walks up to a woman with kids and asks, “why?”

Renate Reinsve as Julie & Herbert Nordrum as Eivind in The Worst Person in the World (COURTESY: NEON)

Julie’s story is narrated storybook style. We see her life from the outside, and we know many intimate things about her, but we don’t live inside her head. Reinsve is so magnificent when the camera follows Julie during her in-between moments. Leaving a gallery event for Aksel, where she spent a lot of time standing around as he talks, we see heartbreak on Julie’s face. Something is missing. She has that misty-eyed look, like someone who is about to cry. She takes those deep mouth breaths you take when you try to get your emotions back on track. Later, Julie talks about the kid question with Eivind. Eivind doesn’t want them, and neither does she, but that nagging what if? It still lives deep in Julie’s mind. After all, she would make a good mother; Aksel said so. Unsure if she believes it, or what that means, she asks Aksel to say it to her again. Aksel tells her, “I saw that you doubted it.” Julie still thinks of motherhood in a sort of fantastical way. It’s certainly a possibility, but she tells Eivind that it might be a good idea because she never sees anything through. As if motherhood was an unfinished painting or puzzle. To her, maybe motherhood is proof that she can see things through. That she is capable of an all-encompassing, committed step in her life. She can be selfless, stay in the moment; she can be still. And everyone would see her, see that proof. She is a good mother, she is a good person, and here is proof.

When Julie contests that she’s not ready for children in Chapter 1, Aksel says that couples have children all the time and figure out the rest of their lives later. The typical “leap of faith” approach. Just-go-for-it-why-not, it’s adventurous and grand and life-changing. And it is all of those things. But it’s a dramatic shift in a person’s identity, one that all those superficial books and classes cannot prepare you for. I have had frank conversations with friends about parenthood. If someone wants it, I want that for them. If someone doesn’t, awesome. But if someone is on the fence, if they feel the ambivalence that Julie feels, like they think it might be the missing piece, I’m not going to suggest a leap of faith for them. That’s taboo to say. It’s not as though I’m telling my friends not to do it, but I’ll be frank about what it means to become a parent, and not just the data, like how much childcare costs. It’s more than that. It’s life-changing, it’s all-encompassing, and it’s very hard. It changes your body, how you think about yourself, and how people see you. There are balls up in the air on any given day, and I need to be careful about which ones I drop. Making sure my daughter is loved and safe – those are made of glass. Work, bills, making sure people know I love and care for them – glass. But things like self-care (whatever that even means these days), exercise, meditation, my writing – those are plastic. Indeed, this analogy applies to not being a parent as well, but my daughter comes before everything. As I wrote this, she wanted to sit with me. Not next to me, with me. In my lap or under my right arm. She and I are like electronics that need to be in close proximity to recharge. So I had to put this away and come back to it later. Again and again.

Renate Reinsve as Julie in The Worst Person in the World (COURTESY: NEON)

At the ending of The Worst Person In the World, Julie is single, and she is happy. She sees a former lover with a new partner, and she’s not heartbroken. More than a film about love, its messiness and contradictions, and beauty and heartbreak, The Worst Person In the World is about a young woman deciding that she does not want to be a mother. Not now, not in the future. When she talked about wanting kids, she was unconvincing. She said it because it felt like the default. She said it to please people because it made her seem like a good person. She said it because she loved Aksel, and she knew he wanted to hear it. But it’s not who she is, and she accepts it. She knows it might make her feel like an outsider, but she’s prepared. She has love to give, but there are many more ways to give unconditional love without having a child. A child makes the world feel new, and that new feeling feels really good. But you can find that feeling in lots of different ways. Spending time with a new friend, visiting a new place, seeing a live performance of art that moves you. And you can still make your own family.

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