(After it’s premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, Kris Rey’s I Used To Go Here was picked up for distribution by Gravitas. The film is available now on HBO Max Like what you see here on Hammer to Nail? Why not pay just $1.00 per month via Patreon to help keep us going?)
Kris Rey (formerly Swanberg) follows up 2015’s Unexpected with similarly-themed story about a woman who is coming to terms with the fact that her best-laid plans have gone awry. Kate Conklin (the always sublime Gillian Jacobs) is a writer experiencing the fallout of an ill-received debut novel. Following the cancellation of her book tour and a broken engagement, she attempts to plug the bursting dam of her heart by accepting an invitation to visit to her alma mater in Carbondale, IL. The host is her former mentor/crush David (Jemaine Clement) who invites her to do a reading for his class and spend a couple of days meeting with his students. Kate seizes the opportunity to immerse herself in the last place where she felt full of creative possibility. She relishes the chance to feel like a successful writer for a bit before facing the music. Unfortunately for Kate, the old adage, “you can’t go home again” isn’t just for childhood.
I love Rey’s approach to titles (Rey has an earlier film called It Was Great But I Was Ready to Come Home). In I Used to Go Here, Kate never utters the titular line, but the sentiment is present whenever she interacts with people in Carbondale. Rey’s story is peppered with many characters who feel fleshed out despite their minimal screen time. One such character is Kate’s pregnant friend Laura (Zoe Chao) who talks Kate through her various crises on the trip while sitting around at home in Chicago about to pop. The film is produced by the Lonely Island which means that Jorma Taccone predictably pops up to act unexpectedly creepy.
Kate ends up at a Bed and Breakfast across the street from the house she once dubbed “The Writers’ Retreat” back when she lived there with her besties. The B & B host alienates Kate immediately with her stodgy demeanor and strict rules. When Kate finds herself locked out for the night, she goes against her better judgement and accepts an invitation to a party at her old pad. This leads to a boundary-crossing friendship with the English majors contained therein, who have kept the house moniker as well as the glow-in-the-dark stars Kate put on the ceiling of her old bedroom. Over the next few days, Kate spends a lot of time with her new crew: the charismatic Animal (Forrest Goodluck), the compassionate Emma (Khloe Janel), the goofy Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley), and the soulful Hugo (Josh Wiggins). She particularly bonds with Hugo, who is in the midst of his own heartbreak. Hugo’s girlfriend, April (Hannah Marks), is behaving emotionally distant and spending an awful lot of time with her professor, who happens to be Kate’s former mentor. Kate knows a thing or two about David’s intentions where young protégées are concerned.
This modern age has brought with it a new type of crisis that emerges before middle age. Now that we’re no longer expected to follow the traditional path of having 2.5 kids, and an upwardly mobile career by 30, some folks (particularly creatives) get a bonus breakdown in their 30s when their friends seem settled into adulthood. They’re no longer in their carefree twenties with the rest of their lives stretching out into eternity. Instead, they have the nagging feeling that they should have figured a few things out by now. Jacobs embodies the surrealistic nature of the conspicuous obsolescence one feels when they return to a familiar place from their youth. Her face exhibits just a hint of pain as she interacts with all the students living their student-ish lives in the spaces she used to call home.
The kids give marvelous and authentic performances all around. Special shout out to Rammel Chan who plays Kate’s affable and loyal student guide for her time at the school. The Writers’ Retreat kids are subdued English majors who can still party and make silly mistakes without behaving like “outrageous teens” from a 90s movie. They are chill and relatable and, for whatever reason, don’t mind having an older lady hanging around.
Kudos to Rey for writing Kate as a relatable artist who can’t quite cut the mustard. Kate’s not some underappreciated genius. She’s a middling writer grappling with the idea that she hasn’t found her own voice yet. It’s possible she never will, despite the fact that Hugo references one of Kate’s more ugly-truth style autobiographical short stories that affected him. There’s no hint of this talent in the passages she shares from her beach read of an anti-romance novel. Jacobs is perfectly cast in the role of Kate. She’s got such a handle on conveying the multitudes of her characters. She’s basically spent her entire career taking the manic dream girl archetype to a place of nuance and I love her for it.
– Jessica Baxter (@tehBaxter)