Kris Rey’s latest has moments that delight, but the final product feels distinctly undercooked.
Kris Rey (formerly known as Kris Swanberg) is no stranger to female-driven slice-of-life narratives that tackle relationship issues, professional aspirations, and general day-to-day struggles. The director has successfully mined this material before, with Empire Builder and Unexpected, and her most recent comic drama, I Used to Go Here, fits comfortably within this lineage of works. This latest work follows the story of a mid-thirties writer, Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), who after publishing her novel, leaves her pregnant bestie Laura (Zoe Chao) in Chicago to head to the college town of Carbondale, Illinois to speak at her alma mater — the invitation came courtesy of her mentor and former crush, Professor David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement). It’s a short-term journey for Kate, one in which she confronts a long since mutated town and her past regrets and failures. Obviously, for a film of this ilk, low-key conflict must quickly arise, and here it manifests in Kate losing the only key to her accommodations on the first day. The cringe factor is present, as Kate also proceeds to run into old flames, tries desperately to reunite with her ex-fiancé, and fixates on an anticipated positive review for her novel from the New York Times. But as the saying goes (and as films of temperament go), “when one door closes, another opens,” and Kate soon befriends a group of college students who will ultimately help her gain a new sense of living and a broader outlook on herself.
It’s fair to say that I Used to Go Here is a timid and familiar film that never aspires to much. It recycles run-of-the-mill themes and heavily relies on overused stylistic formulas and indie film prescriptions. Yet, on the strength of Jacobs’ firecracker performance, the color-saturated compositions, and the thoughtfully-developed mood of small town enchantment, there’s a certain delightful coziness that begins to permeate even the most familiar elements. The script remains a problem, however, most saliently in the film’s second half when Kate and her newfound friends sneak into David’s house just to find out the married professor has had an affair with one student’s girlfriend — and to make matters worse, it’s revealed that the son of a bitch hasn’t even read Kate’s novel. Of course. From this point, story is hastily executed and prevents potentially winning serio-comic situations from really developing. Rey opts for an uninspired and forced conclusion, the ostensible tale of rediscovery and rebirth prematurely ended as Kate quickly rushes home to be with Laura who has gone into labor three weeks early. But it’s a fitting metaphor: I Used to Go Here is a film with plenty of promise, but the overwhelming impression here is that Rey executed her vision before it was entirely ready. It’s a film that while perhaps worth visiting for the minor pleasures, you’re unlikely to want to go back to again.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | August 2020.