The late and legendary New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael once famously stated, “Hollywood is the only place where you can die of encouragement”. I thought of this as I watched the opening scene to filmmaker Kris Rey’s charmingly sly I Used To Go Here. Gillian Jacobs stars as Kate Conklin, a first time author of a book called Seasons Passed, who hears from her publishers, in the sunniest way possible, that her upcoming book tour has been cancelled. Noting that they’re in complete disagreement with the decision and using “it’s the market” and “I think we can point the finger at e-books here” as lame excuses, I felt every smiley stab of Kate’s figurative murder. “The most important thing is that you wrote an amazing book,” they blabber, ending the call with a collective, “Byeeeeee!”
The only ray of light comes from the invitation of a former professor and crush, David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement), to do a reading at her small town Illinois alma mater. So begins Kate searching to find out who she really is as she connects with David and a gaggle of his students. Think of the film as a funny, sweet low stakes hangout movie with an unexpected turn in our hero’s journey. With well-observed, acute detail, Rey clearly knows the landscape, basing this story on her own experiences visiting college campuses with her prior feature, Unexpected.
Upon arrival, Kate meets Elliot, a teacher’s assistant who will hilariously and eagerly serve as her driver over the next couple of days, determined to do anything and everything for his idol. First stop, a Bed & Breakfast directly across the street from her old house. Presided over by dead inside Mrs. Beeter (a scene stealing Cindy Gold), I particularly loved the running gag of her forcing Kate to wear her room key around her neck because it’s the only one she’ll get. Of course, Kate will lose said key at every opportunity.
At the book reading, I loved that Elliot notices that Kate has on the same blazer as the one in her publicity still. Stars. They’re just like us! If only he knew that not all writers are millionaires. Once she takes the stage, Jacobs perfectly captures the awkwardness of jokes not landing or her novel’s plot points not fully explained. The cringe factor gets amped up a few notches at dinner afterwards when David’s wife Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars) tells Kate she didn’t like the book. Rey seems to be playing her audience, setting up Kate as a protagonist who may not hold the keys to the kingdom. In fact, we learn she can barely handle the one key she was given. With a pregnant friend back home who needs her (the always dryly funny Zoe Chao) and an ex-boyfriend she obsesses over who clearly doesn’t, Kate finds herself at that trope known as the proverbial crossroads. Luckily Rey knows how to turn a tired storyline into something specific and believable.
With the big book event out of the way, the next day, Kate discovers a group of male college students who occupy her former home. We meet the sturdy Animal (Forrest Goodluck), the too-young love interest Hugo (Josh Wiggins) and the truly odd Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley) who may come across as disconnected and most often wearing a towel, but supports the film’s themes that people can surprise us. Her ensuing adventures with them, her old professor, and some old acquaintances form the spine of this story, finding Kate way too old to be climbing fences, dancing at house parties and smoking weed with young Gen Z kids. It’s trouble which could get her “grounded!” It turns out you can go home again, but you’re gonna regress if you’re not careful. With comedy so unforced and with such a low key style of filmmaking, Rey establishes herself as an unfussy, humanistic storyteller. Jacobs beautifully glides through the film, never overdoing it, putting just the right Midwestern touch on everything. I believe this small town and the guileless people who inhabit it.
Rey makes smart choices, such as bringing Kate face to face with April (a strong Hannah Marks), a talented writing student who seeks out Kate’s advice but may have more talent than her mentor. In a typical film, April’s cocky attitude would get punished, but Rey forces us to confront what talent looks like and how we view it in traditional storytelling versus what she’s after here. Sometimes the hero doesn’t have all the answers. Sometimes the hero can just be someone not entirely special. Add a fun selection of pop songs and you have a kind film about people you wouldn’t mind knowing, right up to its lovely and honest final line. Isn’t that rare and, frankly, special?
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
I Used To Go Here is opening in theaters and On Demand August 7th.