With a skill that would impress even its writer protagonist, I Used to Go Here excels in its efforts to show, not tell. In just its first five minutes, Kris Rey’s comedy slyly reveals key elements that define who Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs) is, doing a better job of building a character over just a few scenes than most movies do in their entire running time. A lesser film might have Kate vocally lament that she’s at a different stage of life than her friends like Laura (Zoe Chao). Instead, I Used to Go Here shows us where she is in comparison to them — a trio showcasing their matching baby bumps in a photo — while Kate poses with her newly published novel over her flat stomach. Perhaps even more impressively, it never denigrates the life choices of either Kate or her friends. This is a film that’s as graceful in its approach to character development as it is gracious to those characters, poking fun at them the way you do a dear friend.
Kate’s aforementioned novel has just been published, but it’s not quite the triumph she’d hoped. Her publisher cancels her upcoming book tour, so when Kate’s beloved creative writing professor David (Jemaine Clement) invites her back to her alma mater to speak, she hops on the train from Chicago to small-town Carbondale, Illinois, to regain a bit of her pride. Her charming bed and breakfast, which is owned by a far less charming host, is right across the street from the house where she lived, making it easy for Kate to fall into nostalgia and college life. She befriends the students currently living there (Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, and Brandon Daley), runs into an old classmate who never left town, and slips back into (overly) familiar rhythms with David. As she starts to regress into who she was, she evaluates who she is now and how she got here.
Going home is a frequent trope in indie and indie-ish films, like Garden State (2004), Young Adult (2011), and Tiny Furniture (2010). I Used to Go Here finds new life in the theme, while still allowing its heroine to revert in ways we expect – and some we might not. Rey’s script does amble a bit, losing its focus in its third act just like a senior in college, sending Kate out on a wild adventure that feels like a diversion from the rest of the film (and sends our attention wandering as well). However, there are enough moments that anchor her to the audience that we feel connected through each awkward interaction, and there are many awkward interactions, ranging from David’s wife to an interrupted hookup.
Jacobs isn’t forging any new territory for herself as an actress here. However, there’s more to like in Kate than in Jacobs’ previous roles in Community and Love, while I Used to Go Here is always cognizant of her flaws. Along with Jacobs’ performance, Rey fills the film with details about Kate that make her feel like a real person, someone who only owns one good blazer and isn’t quite who she thought she’d be when she grew up. Side characters — chummy professor David, eager student guide Elliot (Rammel Chan), and the guys living in Kate’s old house — each feel equally authentic through fleshed-out specifics, often surprising and delighting us as we get a better sense of who they are alongside Kate.
I Used to Go Here balances its wistful approach to college days with genuine thoughtfulness about adulthood. Warmth and wisdom pervade Rey’s pleasing comedy, where other similarly themed films might hew toward cynicism. Instead, the writer/director has suffused her movie with acceptance and affection, and it’s hard not to reflect those feelings right back toward it.