Filmmaker Kris Rey (formerly known as Kris Swanberg) has long trafficked in stories about compelling women who temper awkward moments by bonding with inappropriate new pals. In her most widely seen feature to date, 2015 Sundance entry “Unexpected,” she matched up a pregnant high school teacher with an expecting student with illuminating results. That concept takes on more amusing results with “I Used to Go Here,” Rey’s best film, which still smacks of her usual obsessions. However, armed with her funniest material to date and a winning performance from Gillian Jacobs, the filmmaker finds new dimensions for both her work and the millennial ennui that has always inspired it.
As with other Rey-scripted heroines, “I Used to Go Here” finds its leading lady at loose ends from the start. Kate (Jacobs) should be celebrating any number of milestones — the release of her first novel, the imminent arrival of her best friends’ babies (yes, that’s multiple best friends, all ready to pop at any moment), and her upcoming nuptials to her long-time boyfriend — but none of those things are sparking much joy. The engagement? That’s off. The book? It’s tracking so poorly that her tour has been cancelled. The pregnancies? Just another reminder how off-track she is.
It’s a familiar enough setup, but Rey and Jacobs avoid cliches when it comes to both writing and performance. Jacobs long ago mastered the art of the sassy lead with movies like “Life Partners,” but “I Used to Go Here” finds her making that idea more emotionally resonant. Kate is a mess, but she’s also likable, sympathetic, and real. Those traits will go a long way once Rey kicks her — and the film — into the meat of its narrative, sending an already struggling Kate back to the place where she first thought (perhaps incorrectly) that she had found herself: college.
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The book tour might be off, but Kate is soon called back to her old alma mater for a few days’ worth of public events thanks to an invitation from her former mentor David (Jemaine Clement). Kate has a complicated history with the beloved professor, the shades of which are obvious from the first moment he leaves her a voicemail that leaves her practically starry-eyed, but the story only deepens from there, as Rey excels at mapping out the details of the pair’s old relationship over the course of the movie.
Back in the charming college town of Carbondale, Illinois, Kate doesn’t just encounter her old life, but her old self. At least, that’s how it feels to a person who has never quite excelled in the adult world the way she did when she was still finding her path within the safe confines of university life. The film shares some DNA with Josh Radnor’s “Liberal Arts,” another indie dramedy that featured a former whiz kid returning to his old college, only to wrestle with his old impressions of himself and the pull of new relationships. However, Rey’s film avoids many of the cliches that film embraced, and finds plenty of shrewd ways to confront the kind of queasy situations inherent to tossing an older “adult” into a world filled with intriguing people more than a decade younger than her.
Dispatched to an infantilizing local bed and breakfast by her plucky student guide Elliot (a very funny Rammel Chan), Kate is pleased to discover that her old college house is located just across the street. It’s called the Writer’s Retreat — just as Kate herself named it all those years ago — and it’s filled with a cadre of interesting coeds who promise they don’t think it’s weird that wants to hang around. Over the course of a few short days (and a handful of big revelations), she’ll want to hang around them plenty.
Back in Chicago, Kate’s heavily pregnant best friend Laura (Zoe Chao) serves as a tether to the real world that Kate becomes increasingly intent to shed, consciously or not. Kate slips back into college life, armed with the kind of muscle memory that pulls her back to old haunts and easily dredges up long-buried memories (upon reconnecting with an old classmate played by Jorma Taccone hilariously named Bradley Cooper, she and Laura giggle over “that time we saw him crying in the Jimmy Johns,” a keen and strange detail that will inspire audiences to recall all sorts of strange shit about the people they used to know).
Mostly, though, Kate seems taken with the fearlessness and freedom of youth, eager to forget her “adult” troubles even as the personal stakes remain high for both her and her new friends. College life might seem like all coffee shops and loud keggers, but as Kate becomes increasingly intertwined with the residents of the Writer’s Retreat (especially Josh Wiggins’ handsome Hugo), she’s forced to reckon with the reality of the world, no matter her age. That “I Used to Go Here” remains funny and fresh throughout its exploration of deeper questions — from the value of creativity to a timely #MeToo subplot — is a testament to the craftsmanship and care that Rey has built it on.
Those who have followed previous lo-fi American cinema from Rey and her peers will delight in some of the feature’s amusing in-jokes — Alex Ross Perry voices Kate’s ex-fiancee in a series of cringe-inducing voicemails, while Rey herself appears as the “other woman” in the ex’s Instagram account — but sharp-eyed cinephiles will most spark to Rey’s canny casting of rising filmmaker Hannah Marks as the whipsmart college student who becomes the object of Kate’s ire. Marks’ acting resume is filled with a number of roles in smaller films, including “Southbound” and recent Sundance entry “Dinner in America,” but she’s also an in-demand filmmaker whose credits include “After Everything” and two new features in pre-production. It’s a canny decision by Rey to have Marks play a character who becomes emblematic of Kate’s jealousy and regret.
The movie takes some big swings in the film’s third act, including some wacky twists that wouldn’t feel out of place in a decades-older sex comedy, but she and her characters earn much of it. While Jacobs remains the film’s star — this is a performance that demands she appear in almost every frame — the nuttier narrative developments also offer Wiggins and fellow co-stars Forrest Goodluck, Brandon Daley, and Khloe Janel the chance to shine. Rey’s ability to keep things steady speaks to a penchant for imbuing formulaic scenarios with fresh energy even with a bigger cast. While Kate may face an uncertain future, “I Used to Go Here” is proof that Rey’s has a lot of potential.
“I Used to Go Here” was set to premiere in the Narrative Spotlight section at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.