Everyone remembers their first off-campus college house. This writer’s was built into the side of a hill, so doors would swing open at random moments and none of the cabinets closed all the way. A metal band lived at the bottom, and the sound of their practice sessions traveled up the hill and into our living room every afternoon. (They got pretty good after a while.) We’d throw parties in the unfinished basement, until someone spilled a 10-gallon gravity bong and the whole place stunk like skunk water for a month. Our curtains were homemade, our sheets were threadbare, our couches were lumpy, and our futures were still ahead of us.
When the iris of adulthood starts closing around you, it’s normal to want to go back to the time when you felt happiest and freest—which, for many people, was a scenario much like the crooked, rundown rental described above. Taken to its extreme, however, this yearning becomes, frankly, rather pathetic and self-defeating. Maybe that’s why it’s provided comedic fuel for everyone from Bing Crosby and Rodney Dangerfield to Melissa McCarthy and Will Ferrell over the last half-century and change of film history. Now, Gillian Jacobs—who rose to prominence in Community, another comedy of recurrent education—is on a nostalgia trip of her own in Kris Rey’s good-natured, sharply observed indie I Used To Go Here.
Jacobs stars as Kate, a 35-year-old writer whose dreams of becoming a published novelist have come true but not in the way she was hoping. Her book is getting bad reviews and turning in poor sales reports, so much so that her publisher cancels the book tour. Her fiancé dumped her after she added a smug nod to their domestic bliss on the book jacket—the insult to that injury is that she also hates the cover art. In short, Kate is vulnerable, leading her to accept an invitation from her undergraduate writing teacher David (Jemaine Clement) to come give a talk at her old college in downstate Illinois. Adulation from a handful of starry-eyed students isn’t enough to satiate Kate’s neediness, however, and so she stops by her old college house for a quick hit of nostalgia. A better adjusted person would realize that the place was a shithole and just go back to their hotel. But Kate quickly inserts herself into a messy love triangle with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), the teenager who now sleeps in her old bedroom, and his girlfriend, April (Hannah Marks).
The setup has the potential for broad, raunchy comedy, and I Used To Go Here does provide Jacobs and her under-21 crew—including the endearingly dorky, aptly named Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley)—some fun pratfalls and exaggerated whispers in a midnight surveillance scene later in the film. But for the most part, Rey’s execution is, for lack of a better word, more adult than all that; her sharp dialogue lampoons male sexual entitlement, and there are subtle visual gags that underline Kate’s immaturity and the existential absurdity of her dilemma. (A scene where she holds up her book next to a lineup of friends posing with their pregnant bellies is at once cringeworthy and hilarious.)
That said, the film’s even-handed patience doesn’t always jibe with the more outrageous characterizations. Jacobs thrives on the material, however, playing Kate with enough confidence that she comes across as a real, flawed human being and not an aw-shucks caricature of a mess. Clement, meanwhile, stays mostly in the background—he is something of a caricature, the college professor who’s just a little too interested in nurturing the talent of young female students. The implications of Kate and David reconnecting when she’s at her lowest remain mostly unexplored, as does the fallout from Kate replicating these predatory patterns in her interactions with Hugo.
That’s a whole different, meaner movie, though. I Used To Go Here would rather be painfully relatable than cutting. Rey, whose other three features were made under the last name Swanberg (her ex-husband, Joe, is the mumblecore director), comes from the world of ultra-low-budget filmmaking, and seems reluctant still to overplay her realistic and low-key material. Combine that with the cheerfully silly work of her producing team, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer, and Jorma Taccone (a.k.a. The Lonely Island), and you get a pretty good idea of the mix of styles at play here. The results of the experiment are uneven, but isn’t experimentation what college is all about?
This review is an expanded version of The A.V. Club’s review of I Used To Go Here from SXSW.