The last we saw Kris Rey as writer/director (she had a small on-screen role in Damien Chazelle’s First Man last year), she delivered Unexpected, a sweetly thoughtful exploration of motherhood in its many forms. She returns five years later with I Used To Go Here, another exploration of the (cis-het white) female experience, this time as protagonist Kate (Gillian Jacobs) faces a disappointing book launch and is asked back to her downstate Illinois alma mater (the fictional Illinois University) to speak to a class taught by her former professor. Her trip away turns into a bit more than she bargained for, as she navigates a recent break-up, the drama of her new campus friends and confronting the inevitable passage of time. Though it goes a bit off track when it departs too far from Kate’s journey, I Used to Go Here is another welcome bit of storytelling from a filmmaker evolving personally and professionally and who’s willing to explore that evolution in her films.
Filmed in Chicago, the film introduces Kate as she’s heading home (from the looks of it, to an apartment just off the Western Brown Line) and getting the news that her new book’s early sales aren’t quite with the publisher was hoping for. As a result, they’ve decided to cancel her promotional book tour (the purpose of which, she astutely points out, is to promote the lagging book sales…). Fresh off that news, the day’s mail has a few of its own surprises, including mail for a former fiancé she spends much of the film trying to figure out how to get back in touch with. Just how adrift Kate is feeling comes into stark relief at a triple baby shower (three moms, not triplets) for friends, when she poses with the moms-to-be holding her book as if it’s her baby. Certainly an accomplishment like publishing a whole damn novel is nothing to be minimized, but Rey sharply captures just how odd these accomplishments can still feel for a woman, especially when lined up with milestones like marriage, children and white picket fences.
In the midst of all this, Kate gets a call from a former college professor, David (Jemaine Clement), who invites her downstate to speak to his class, and before long she’s on the train to Carbondale, a welcome distraction from the canceled book tour, her pregnant friends, all of it. A delightfully midwestern handler, Elliot (Rammel Chan) meets her at the station and informs her that he’ll be available as chauffeur for her time on campus. He drops her at a bed and breakfast that just happens to be across the street from the off-campus house she shared with her girlfriends back when they were undergrads, so of course she heads over to introduce herself to the new tenants. There’s the socially awkward Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley), ladies man Animal (Forrest Goodluck) and all-around good guy Hugo (Josh Wiggins, with about a million watts of star power radiating off him—kudos on that casting!). Hugo’s girlfriend is in the class Kate will be speaking to, so in the way they usually do in midwestern college towns, everyone pretty much knows everybody else.
Soon, Kate meets David’s wife, reconnects for drinks with a former classmate who still lives in town (and his very handsy girlfriend), and decides to take the guys up on their offer to attend the party they’re throwing in her old house that night. Without trying all that hard, she’s let herself completely forget about her life as a working author in the city, putting up little to no resistance to being her carefree college self again. And let’s be honest, especially with how this year’s been going, who wouldn’t be happy to give it all up for a few days to be 19 again? Her “real life” creeps in now and then, particularly in the form of that pesky former fiancé she can’t seem to shake, but generally speaking, Kate’s letting herself enjoy the trip down memory lane.
It’s here that Rey tries to inject a bit of extra drama into Kate’s weekend away, straining to create a second storyline around David’s professor-ly shenanigans, Hugo and that girlfriend of his and…Tall Brandon and Hugo’s mom? It’s a stretch, to say the least, and though there’s a laugh or two in there somewhere, this detour from Kate’s own adventures doesn’t really work. It’s clear that Rey needed something to jolt Kate out of her mild depression and the belief that just turning back the clock to a time in her life when the stakes were much lower might solve all her adult problems, but the jolt is more of a nudge, and it’s not all that successful on its own. By the time Kate is called back to the city, it may be that the immaturity and drama she stumbled into was enough to wake her up to just how good she has it (or how good it could be). It doesn’t really matter in the end; what’s important is that Kate is not the same person she was when all this started, and as she heads home, she knows it.
I Used to Go Here is now playing (in person!) at the Music Box Theatre. If you’re not ready to head back to socially distanced cinemas, it is also available on the theater’s Virtual Cinema platform. Learn more.