For many, their college years are the epitome of rosy nostalgia. Often experiencing a level of unfettered freedom for the first time, but still far enough removed from the prospect of entering the workforce to enjoy it, students can be blessed with a sense of unlimited potential. For a certain segment of the population, it’s a time to dream bigger than they ever have before — they can be a famous novelist, or a poet, or a filmmaker, if only they want it bad enough. It’s not uncommon for these creative dreams to be abandoned in favor of something more “practical” — a career that provides a measure of stability that can be difficult to achieve for one dedicated solely to practicing the arts. It’s no surprise that those who set aside the passions of their youth may look back fondly and wonder about the road not taken, but those who stayed the course also fall prey to this retrospection — even if they’ve achieved a modicum of success, odds are it isn’t exactly the way they imagined it would be all those years ago, when they were sitting in a messy dorm room, crafting the perfect avant garde short story for their freshman comp class. Such is the case for Kate (Gillian Jacobs), the floundering author at the heart of Kris Rey’s I Used to Go Here. Preparing for the release of her debut novel while reeling from a bad breakup and surrounded by a cadre of friends who all seem to have become pregnant simultaneously, Kate is lured back to her alma mater in Illinois with the promise of a reading and the possibility of a teaching gig dangled by her former creative writing professor David (Jemaine Clement). As she makes herself at home at an authoritarian bed and breakfast, she finds herself drawn to the gaggle of young students now living in her former college haunt across the street — their carefree nature and seeming lack of adult concerns providing the perfect escape from the increasingly suffocating worries of her life outside the idyllic bubble of a college town. What better way to escape a crisis than a retreat to what’s familiar, to an environment you look back on fondly as a source of comfort, of protection? But, of course, living in the past is an easy out, and if you stay long enough you’re bound to realize that every stage of growing up comes with its own difficulties. As writer and director, Rey deftly weaves in the reminders of those parts of college conveniently forgotten in service of nostalgia, forcing Kate to confront the bad along with the good — the alumnus who’s too open about his former fantasies, the professor whose motives are less than pure, the student battling crippling insecurity. Heightened though it may be at times, Rey’s inherent understanding of the emotional throughline running through the lives of a specific group of twenty- and thirty-somethings serves to mostly elevate this story above standard tropes of arrested adolescence, and her talented cast — particularly Jacobs and Clement — find the right balance of comedy and ennui to carry that emotional weight. Ultimately, I Used to Go Here has its finger squarely on the pulse of a very specific breed of millennial malaise. Even if we’re successful, shouldn’t we be more so? Shouldn’t we be happier? Is there a timeline for adulthood that we’re behind on? Can’t we just go back to college, when things were simpler? There isn’t an easy answer (or even an answer at all) to any of these questions, and the film knows it: despite Kate’s efforts, time only moves in one direction, and there’s nothing you can really do but muddle through as best you can, taking solace in the fact that — though it may not feel like it — most everyone else is on a similar journey.
SXSW Review: I Used to Go Here