For many of us who resided in college towns for a good chunk of our early adulthood, it’s easy to look back on the experience with an air of enchantment. While there were plenty of drawbacks to college life itself, there remains a perpetual sense of nostalgia for the excitement and freedom that comes with living away from home for the first time. Reminiscing about my own liberal arts school experience often triggers a sentimental flood of sensory stimuli: the taste of Chinese take-out accompanied by malt liquor, the ringing in my ears from a noisy basement show, the smell of dragon’s blood incense. However, if anyone asked me to voluntarily re-subject myself to the reality of caffeine-fueled essays, mandatory class participation and college-aged men, I’d politely decline.
This is not the case for the protagonist of Kris Rey’s latest feature. Kate Conklin (Community’ Gillian Jacobs) is a 35-year-old writer whose breakout novel is performing poorly and receiving tepid reviews, forcing her publisher to cancel her book tour. On top of that, Kate’s still reeling over her fiance breaking things off with her, constantly obsessing over any opportunity to communicate with him. So when she receives a call from her college mentor, Professor Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement), inviting her to speak at her alma mater regarding her novel, Kate doesn’t hesitate to pack her bags.
I Used to Go Here begins as an exploration of millennial ennui in the face of failure, but it is ultimately uninterested in delving deeper into the consequences of the selfishness that can come with coping. Kate is clearly desperate to get away from the heaviness of her situation, so it’s predictable that she would escape to the place where her future once seemed so full of potential. While Kate could choose to form a different relationship with this town—one of visiting lectures and renting rooms in quaint bed-and-breakfasts—she finds herself regressing into her sophomore-year self to stave off the brutality of adult life. She quickly inserts herself into the lives of a group of 20-year-olds who currently reside in the off-campus house that she and her friends rented 15 years prior, bonding in particular with cherubic Hugo (Josh Wiggins), who now resides in the very room she once occupied.
To her credit, Kate’s attempts to reconnect with those her own age—such as an uncomfortable encounter with a former classmate—are unsuccessful. Kate divulges over drinks to her perverted acquaintance and his girlfriend a bit about the ethos of her book, a romance novel entitled Seasons Past. She explains that the lovers in her book never end up having sex despite their overt attraction, claiming that one of the most overlooked aspects within contemporary romance is that of self-restraint. Ironically, Kate can incorporate this characteristic in her prose, but is incapable of showing this trait in any of her interactions with the 20-year-olds. Despite the obvious creepiness of it, she finds herself in a love triangle between Hugo and his girlfriend April (Hannah Marks), a gifted young writer and Kirkpatrick’s current star-pupil. It’s unclear if Kate’s actions are simply the product of her being lonely enough to find genuine respite in the lanky arms of a 20-year-old or if she’s just that bitterly jealous of April’s promising future. Either way, they highlight a crack in the veneer of Kate’s starry-eyed idea of life in a small college town and the trajectory of those that pass through it.
For a film with multiple power imbalances, I Used to Go Here never dares betray its light and breezy tone in order to properly explore these toxic relationships in any meaningful way. This might not be out of line with the overarching spirit of movies about the undergraduate experience, but in this case it conveys a certain nonchalance concerning the predatory actions of the adults in the film. Rey ultimately displays a disinterest in unraveling how these characters serve to perpetuate a harmful climate for college students. While the film recognizes that these relationships are wholly unhealthy, it doesn’t exert the extra effort of grappling with the cyclical nature of abuses of power, the vulnerability of being a fledgeling adult or the weaponizing of one’s pain for personal gain. Instead, the film is tidily resolved so abruptly that it feels as if it’s lacking a third act entirely, as if it needed to cut away quickly before the consequences of these actions made themselves apparent.
While Jacob’s performance as a selfish, struggling writer is rife with charm, the slipperiness of her character as she evades any semblance of self-reflection or reckoning leaves a lingering air of second-hand shame. I Used to Go Here betrays its twee sensibility by dancing with a prickly subject matter ill-suited for surface-level examination. Especially when these relationships are framed as imperfect resolutions to crumbling marriages or momentary lapses of judgement, it only serves to normalize these imbalanced affairs as a forever-ingrained reality of the college experience.
Director: Kris Rey
Writers: Kris Rey
Stars: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Hannah Marks, Josh Wiggins, Khloe Janel, Forrest Goodluck, Kate Micucci, Jorma Taccone, Brandon Daley, Zoe Chao
Release Date: August 7, 2020 (Gravitas Venture)
Natalia Keogan is a Queens-based writer who covers film, music and culture, with particular interest in the horror genre and depictions of sexuality and gender. You can read her work in Narratively, Filmmaker Magazine and Paste, and find her on Twitter.