Kris Rey’s I Used To Go Here examines the many trials and tribulations familiar to any creative person who goes professional, but the film itself is about more than artistic drive or finding inspiration. Our lead character, Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), has pursued a very specific template of success all her life. When she finally achieves it, it brings her neither happiness nor reward. An opportunity to relive past adventures is fun but empty, revealing truths that should have been self-evident much earlier. Her journey is at times embarrassing, but never shaming. She must learn to live with the consequences of her actions, but is not defined only by her mistakes. Recognition of these patterns does not free her from their influence, and though her fate is even more uncertain than before, she no longer requires the validation she previously sought. If you’ve ever realized that something that brought you comfort was holding you back, you will certainly identify with I Used To Go Here.
Kate was once the star of her university’s English department. She created a legacy by establishing an off-campus residence as a writers’ retreat, a character it retained well after she left, even containing some of her original interior decoration. Under the tutelage of professor David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement), she was destined for great things as a creative writer in the real world. Fifteen years later, her first published novel is a commercial and critical flop, and her promotional book tour is canceled. Her friends are all pregnant, while her wedding has just been called off. When David invites her to read at her alma mater and offers a teaching job, Kate has her chance to revisit the place that shaped her, while examining if that shape is worth passing along to others.
With no job, no relationship, and a canceled book tour, Kate’s calendar is wide open, and she becomes involved in the lives of David’s current students and the occupants of her old residence. She parties with Animal (Forrest Goodluck) and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley), flirts with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), and sits in on David’s classes. (That she has lost the key to her bed and breakfast makes it simpler to spend all her time with them.) It would be easy to make Kate a fish out of water as she reaches mutual respect with initially dismissive hipsters, but Rey is not interested in obvious gimmicks or staid twists. Some aspects of the story are familiar, but the film dissects the ways we live as a projection of who we think we’re supposed to be.
Rey and those she collaborated with early in her career have evolved beyond the mumblecore label, but they all share the same seed of unflinching emotional honesty in their work as they grow older, even in a film like I Used To Go Here. It’s a lighthearted comedy-drama, but contains a great deal of wisdom and insight from someone with a decade and a half of terrific work. Even the most successful artist will want to evolve, and many of the obstacles blocking that evolution are self-imposed. In one scene, Kate is swimming with her new friends, at ease in what was once her element. In the next, a meeting with a student named April (Hannah Marks) turns adversarial. Kate’s tone with the up-and-comer, like she once was, comes from a position of authority, not advice. Whether out of personal resentment or creative jealousy, Kate is unable to support April, and it is the first indication that her mentor David’s influence might have been an impediment. Every artistic person knows this feeling, when another person’s opinion finds its way into your creation, and it is devastating to view from the outside.
What’s most memorable about I Used To Go Here is the way it packs these themes into such a short and sweet story, and that even the most absurd shenanigans are always motivated either thematically or narratively. Kate’s new friends are a bit naive but they’re not stupid; they’re sexually charged, but they’re not maniacs. The only cartoon characters are Jorma Taccone and Kate Micucci as a wildly inappropriate couple attempting to make small talk, a glimpse of what might have happened to Kate if she’d never left her college town. Even when the gang plans an improbable heist, it feels natural.
The biggest surprise might be seeing Lonely Island in the credits for what isn’t an anarchic, raucous laughfest, though the Lonely Island Classics production credit is a stroke of genius. While most of the film world’s focus is on what might happen with the big studio tent poles and theater chains, lockdown is a great opportunity to level the cinematic playing field. Kris Rey’s I Used To Go Here is a reminder that films can be deeply personal without being autobiographical; funny without setting a joke-per-page quota; and ambitious with a tiny budget.