“Critics are the worst kind of humans,” says Jemaine Clement in the role of David Kirkpatrick, a horndog college professor trying to comfort Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), a former student whose first novel has just been savaged in The New York Times as an “amateurish beach read.” But the critic isn’t saying anything worse than what the author is thinking about herself. She knows her publisher hasn’t cancelled her book tour because they smell a bestseller. That’s why Kate, 35 and feeling a major squeeze on her options, accepts David’s invite to return to her alma mater in Carbondale, Illinois, and speak to his class. Maybe, in the students’ hopeful eyes, she’ll find the eager artist she once was.
Kris Rey, the sharply observant writer and director of I Used to Go Here — she used to go to Southern Illinois University herself — is not at all interested in making the cinematic equivalent of an amateurish beach read. Rey’s reputation precedes her as an actress, filmmaker, and documentarian who collaborated with her former husband, mumblecore guru Joe Swanberg, under her married name. In her own films — It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home (2009), Empire Builder (2012), and Unexpected (2015) — Rey showed a unique gift for exploding expectations. For those who anticipate a campus romp filled with parties and bawdy sex, prepare for a shock.
Thanks to a brightly frazzled and emotionally nuanced performance from Jacobs (Life Partners, TV’s Community), we’re with Kate from the get-go. Showing a confident face to the world, Chicago success-story Kate is secretly imploding. Her three closest friends are all visibly pregnant and seemingly overjoyed — only her former SIU roommate Laura (Zoe Chao) phones in with qualms about impending motherhood. Besides that, Kate’s career is stalled and she’s been dumped by her fiancé (filmmaker Alex Ross Perry does the dude’s hilariously dickish voicemails, with Rey herself playing his new arm candy on Instagram). Capping off the humiliation, when Kate visits her old college house, the students now living in the hallowed space she dubbed the Writer’s Retreat 15 years ago remind her that 15 years ago, they were in kindergarten.
While a lesser filmmaker would have reduced the new occupants of the Writer’s Retreat to Animal House types — one resident is even named Animal — Rey and her up-for-anything cast are hunting bigger game. Star-in-the-making Josh Wiggins goes the extra mile as Hugo, the student who intuits what Kate is going through. Though almost no one in this movie has read Kate’s book, Hugo has deeply admired a short story she once wrote about her dead brother. Kate’s wince at her brother’s name indicates how avoidance of what hurts is restricting her writing and her life. Rey doesn’t run from the emotions that shadow the movie’s laughs. Take Hugo’s screwball plan to involve Kate and his friends in a scheme to blackmail Kirkpatrick with photos of the prof sleeping with a student, April (Hannah Marks, all kinds of wonderful ). It turns out that she’s Hugo’s girlfriend and the student Kate most dislikes, out of envy of her talent and self-possession. To add to the film’s generational dynamic, Marks, like the older Rey, is also an actress, writer, and director.
The art-imitates-life parallels are subtextual, not meant to define I Used to Go Here but to deepen it. Rey’s movie about an adult woman confronting her not-so-distant youth touches a universal chord for anyone who learns the hard way that you can’t go home again. It’s not that Rey is above dumb jokes. Jorma Taccone pops up as a former classmate named Bradley Cooper (“It’s just Brad now”) who offers Kate his idea of a compliment: “I used to jerk off to you in college.” It’s the touching gravity of the film that sneaks up on you. Kate makes mistakes, like (spoiler alert) sleeping with Hugo and having to confront her own hypocrisy for nailing David as a sexual predator. So don’t be fooled by Rey’s easygoing style — her characters walk the same moral minefields as the rest of us. Early reviewers took shots at I Used to Go Here for not digging deeper into the thorny questions it introduces. But Rey deserves credit for comic observations that sting. And besides, critics are the worst kind of humans.