For I Used to Go Here’s Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), life has not turned out the way that she hoped that it would. She’s broken up with her fiancé (even as an entire box of wedding invitations arrives at her apartment), and while her first novel has just been released, sales and reviews are not positive, and her publisher has decided to cancel her book tour. She spends a miserable day at a baby shower for her best friend Laura (Zoe Chao), where all the other women are pregnant and glowing, while she’s bitter and alone. So when Kate’s former college professor David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement) calls and asks her to give a reading at her alma mater, Kate jumps at the chance to spend a weekend in the last place she felt truly herself.
Of course, Kate isn’t 20 years old anymore, and going back to the campus where she was David’s star pupil and editor of a student literary magazine doesn’t erase the mistakes she’s made in her life. She can’t go back in time, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to try. She ends up staying in a bed-and-breakfast right across the street from the house where she used to live, which is now inhabited by a quirky assortment of current students. Kate wanders over and befriends them, pointing out the nickname she made up for the house and the glow-in-the-dark stars that she stuck to the ceiling of one of the bedrooms.
A broader comedy would amplify the generational differences and turn Kate into a pathetic fool, but writer-director Kris Rey takes a gentler approach, showing how Kate forms a genuine connection with these young people who both admire and pity her. Kate isn’t entirely unaware of how silly she’s acting, periodically calling Laura to lament the sad state of her life. As she fumbles through her reading and awkwardly discusses her writing with professors and students, Kate realizes how much of herself she’s sacrificed for a life she didn’t even want. Jacobs plays Kate with a perfect mix of bravado and insecurity, and even when she’s engaging in obviously misguided behavior, she’s still relatable and charming.
There’s a wacky caper in the movie’s third act that gets a little too goofy, but Rey keeps the emotions grounded, especially in a thorny love quadrangle of sorts among Kate, David and a pair of students. This isn’t a movie about big emotional confrontations, and the character growth is mostly quiet and internal. While Kate is always at the center of the story, Rey makes room for students Hugo (Josh Wiggins) and April (Hannah Marks) to come to quiet revelations of their own, and even David has a sort of personal reckoning. It’s the kind of important growth that people hope for in college, even if it’s coming a decade or two late in certain cases.
In between those moments, Rey gives I Used to Go Here a relaxed hangout vibe, as Kate lounges around her former home with some endearingly earnest nerds, talking about writing and relationships. It’s not hard to see why Kate would want to spend time at this house with these people, in a comforting bubble of hook-ups and intellectual debate, away from the drudgery of adult life. The greatest strength of Rey’s work in I Used to Go Here is that she makes the eventual facing of maturity and responsibility look just as satisfying.