'I Used to Go Here': Film Review

I Used to Go Here-Publicity still - H 2020
Gravitas Ventures
When it isn't straining credulity, an incisive cringe-fest with heart.

Gillian Jacobs plays a young novelist and Jemaine Clement her onetime teacher in writer-director Kris Rey's comedy.

For Kate Conklin, the fretful-but-smiling protagonist of I Used to Go Here, a visit to her old college campus, 15 years after graduation, is a step into a comforting cocoon — they don't call it alma mater for nothing. But that return to less complicated times is also mined with defeat, humiliation and pot-infused gummies, the catalysts of awakening in Kris Rey's low-key cringe comedy. As the story veers between well-observed discomfort, deadpan absurdity and unconvincing broad strokes, the Chicago filmmaker taps into a specific type of 30-something tween-ness, a moment of having arrived as a grown-up but not really.

What might have been a victory lap for Kate — she's a first-time novelist, invited to give a reading — is more a slow drift through suspended animation and dawning self-awareness. She's played by a perfectly tentative Gillian Jacobs (Community, Love), leading a well-tuned comic ensemble that also features a compelling Jemaine Clement, deploying inscrutable charm as the professor who beckons Kate back to her sleepy college town.

The invitation from writing instructor David Kilpatrick (Flight of the Conchords' Clement, co-creator of What We Do in the Shadows) arrives at precisely the right moment, on the heels of a trifecta of excruciating awfulness for Kate: Her publisher cancels her book tour before it's begun, the mail brings constant reminders of her canceled wedding, and the baby shower of her best friend (Zoë Chao) is an exercise in social torture. So she hightails it, in her amiable way, from Chicago to the fictional Illinois University.

The super-chipper T.A. who serves as her driver and cheerleader (Rammel Chan) deposits Kate at a B&B whose snarling proprietor (Cindy Gold) seems to have chosen the wrong line of business. After losing her key (shades of Ulysses' Leopold Bloom?), but not really needing an excuse, Kate spends most of her time with the English majors across the street, who look up to her as a "real writer." One of them, the sensitive Hugo (Josh Wiggins), sincerely appreciates her work.

Jacobs effortlessly embodies the way Kate, when not engaged in her official writerly duties on campus, morphs into another college kid — partying, hanging out, wearing borrowed T-shirts. (In a terrific detail that pinpoints her place on the worldly achievements spectrum, someone notes just before her reading that she's wearing the same blazer as the one in her official author photo.) When she's not finding excuses to text her ex, she demeans herself by having drinks with a doltishly obscene former classmate (Jorma Taccone, a producer too, along with his Lonely Island partners Adam Samberg and Akiva Schaffer).

The romantic hookups that are revealed and the new ones that develop are no surprise, yet not entirely persuasive. Plot-wise, the movie tends toward the contrived and cartoonish. But Rey, whose previous features include Unexpected and Empire Builder (released when she was married to fellow director Joe Swanberg and used his last name), has a knack for recognizing everyday stabs of awkwardness and turning throwaway lines into grace notes.

Some of the strongest scenes in I Used to Go Here are its cringiest, notably the passive-aggressive mini-drama Kate finds herself in when having drinks with David and his wife (Kristina Valada-Viars). Rey hits the mark too with her characters' unexpected gestures of generosity and kindness, as when college kids Animal (Forrest Goodluck) and Emma (Khloe Janel, impressive in a small role) pause their make-out session to help Kate parse her ex-fiancé's Instagram (director Rey appears in screen images as his new love interest).

And while many a movie would reduce David's star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), to a cliché of high-octane sexuality and ruthless careerism, Rey teases the stereotype but ultimately takes the character's ambition seriously. April's exchanges with Kate — tinged with the latter's jealousy as a writer and as a woman, her own college-era feelings for David clearly reawakened — touch on questions of focused self-determination and idealism vs. marketability.

The film's book-biz details often feel off-key or generic, though. Writerly self-doubt is one thing, but Kate's passivity makes it hard to believe she landed a book deal in the first place, and her naïveté can leave the action feeling flat and underpowered. Yet when Rey zeros in on the undercurrents, even in fleeting instants, she disturbs the surface in ways that are insightful as well as heartening. Fitfully perhaps, but with an eye for inner torment and affection for her characters, she brings Kate's story to rewardingly awkward life.

In theaters and on demand
Distributor: Gravitas Ventures
Production companies: Myriad Pictures, Party Over Here, Lonely Island Classics, Yale Productions, Ten Acre Films, BondIt Media Capital, Buffalo 8, SSS Entertainment, SSS Film Capital
Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Josh Wiggins, Hannah Marks, Forrest Goodluck, Jorma Taccone, Zoë Chao, Kate Micucci, Brandon Daley, Khloe Janel, Rammel Chan, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Cindy Gold, Kristina Valada-Viars
Director-screenwriter: Kris Rey
Producers: Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, Jorma Taccone, Becky Sloviter, Jordan Yale Levine, Jordan Beckerman, Jonathan Duffy, Kelly Williams
Executive producers: Matthew Helderman, Luke Taylor, Joe Listhaus, Shaun Sanghani, Sabine Stener, Rohan Gurbaxani, Gigi Lacks, Jackie Palkovicz, Michael Palkovicz, Michael J. Rothstein, Roz Rothstein
Director of photography: Nate Hurtseller
Production designer: Megan Hovany
Costume designer: Kate Grube
Editor: Zach Clark
Composer: Curtis Heath
Casting: Mickie Paskal, Jennifer S. Rudnicke, AJ Links

88 minutes