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FilmWatch Weekly: Oscar nominee ‘The Worst Person in the World’ and potent doc ‘Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America’

A smart, engaging, crowd-pleasing winner from Norway; a probing of race in America with righteous resolve and firm facts.

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Renate Reinsve in “The Worst Person in the World.” Photo: Kasper Tuxen, Oslo Pictures

The Worst Person in the World is the fifth feature from Norwegian director Joachim Trier, and (forgive the cliché) it confirms his status as a major European auteur. Not only that, it just earned him his first Oscar nomination, for Best Original Screenplay. And it features a mesmerizing lead performance from Renate Reinsve, who won the Best Actress prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Reinsve plays Julie, a somewhat aimless woman in her late 20s who has pursued studies in medicine, psychology, and photography, but now works in a bookstore. She’s in a relationship with Asker (Anders Danielsen Lie), a somewhat older, successful underground cartoonist, but one night she leaves one of Asker’s signings and, on a whim, crashes a wedding reception she wanders past. There, she has one of the most intense “meet-cute”s on record with Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), one of the invited guests. They decide to be as intimate as possible without doing anything that would constitute “cheating”—smelling each other’s armpits, sharing their darkest secrets, watching each other urinate, that sort of thing. It’s, oddly, a downright sexy scene, and there’s more than a spark between them, but they part at the end of the night to return to their respective partners.

Of course, Eivind pops up again later on, but this isn’t a typical romantic triangle story. For one thing, Julie, despite her self-doubts (see the title) and indecision, maintains both our sympathy and her own agency. For another, Trier occasionally indulges in charming cinematic invention, such as a scene in which the world freeze-frames while Julie runs across town from one man to the other in order to share some time. In another, a mushroom trip brings Julie, in macabrely hilarious fashion, face to face with her own anxieties about motherhood.

It may seem like it takes more than a bit of chutzpah for a male director to write a lead female character, but (at least to this male viewer) there’s nary a false note, likely thanks to the contribution of Reinsve. In addition, The Worst Person in the World doesn’t aim for any grand statements about gender or generations, instead crafting a portrait of one unique, flawed, promising person trying to find her place in the world. (That said, there is a monologue from the fortyish Asker at one point lamenting the decline of physical media that speaks to the heart of your humble, Gen-X, video-store-loving correspondent.)

Trier’s first two films, 2006’s Reprise, and 2011’s Oslo, August 31, together with this one, comprise what he dubs his “Oslo trilogy,” each co-written with his regular collaborator, Eskil Vogt, and set in the Norwegian capital. Clearly Trier has a thing for numbered iterations: The Worst Person in the World is told in twelve chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, each one a discrete vignette informed as much by what we don’t get to see as by what we have seen. That structure, combined with an ability to fuse naturalism and melodrama, justify that Oscar nomination and make this a smart, engaging, dare one say crowd-pleasing, effort. (Opens on Friday, Feb. 11, at the Living Room Theaters)

***

AS NOTED LAST WEEK, this is Black History Month, and it’s surely no coincidence that the compelling documentary Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America is opening this weekend. The film combines a TED-talk-style presentation by ACLU deputy legal director Jeffery Robinson with footage of Robinson visiting relevant landmarks and interviewing various folks.

Jeffrey Robinson in a scene from “Who We Are.”

Robinson delivers his message with righteous resolve and firm facts. His thesis, one that has gained a lot of traction in recent years, is that America was founded on white supremacy and that those rotten foundation boards continue to impact the lives of all Americans, but especially those with darker skin, in ways that tragically echo the past. Our society has reached tipping points before, notably during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights movement a century later, but in each instance progress towards true racial equality was rolled back, whether by the withdrawal of federal troops from the South or by the assassin’s bullet that felled Martin Luther King, Jr. Now, says Robinson, we are at another tipping point, as outrage over police killings of Black men and fatigue with the War on Drugs and the carceral state it created boils over.

None of this is news, of course, to anyone who pays much attention to such issues. The increased, though horribly belated, mainstream awareness of things such as the 1921 Tulsa Massacre, the practice of redlining, and the origin of police forces as fugitive slave patrols is welcome. And there are instances new to me, such as the pro-slavery lyrics in the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But Robinson’s lecture agglomerates these facts, and many others, into a powerful rebuke to any argument that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, or that the institution itself was not, and is not, at the core of the racial injustice and inequality that continue today. In other words, there’s a lot of ammunition to fire back with when your racist uncle starts up again next Thanksgiving.

But the most emotional parts of Who We Are are the scenes outside the lecture hall. Robinson, as respectfully as possible, engages in conversation with a Confederate flag supporter. He visits the spots where slaves were sold in New York City and lynched in town squares, and where the bodies of their victims were dumped in ditches. He visits the daughter of a man who was lynched in the 1940s, for the crime of being too successful, and interviews one of the last living survivors of the Tulsa Massacre.

Robinson builds his case with a lawyer’s attention to detail, and with a refusal to engage in rhetoric that the facts don’t support. He can do that, because the facts do support his conclusion. In fact, they show it to be an open-and-shut case.

The question with movies like this is how much they can get their message beyond the choir, which makes it disappointing to me that the distributor, Sony Pictures Classics, is sticking with its theatrical-only release model. The company has admirably stuck by its guns, even during the pandemic, by resisting the simultaneous release of its films on streaming services. But this is one instance where very little would be lost on a smaller screen, and the more people who can see Who We Are without having to buy a ticket or get off their couch, the better. (Opens Friday, Feb. 12, at Cinema 21)

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since. As the former manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, and later the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité, he immersed himself in the cinematic education that led to his position as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, Mohan pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017. He can’t quite seem to break the habit, though, of loving and writing about movies.

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