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Back to school – ‘I Used to Go Here’

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As often stated by noted podcast judge and raconteur John Hodgman, nostalgia is a toxic impulse. We’re all guilty of it, the tendency to look back upon our pasts with rose-colored glasses when the present isn’t living up to our expectations. It serves as both distraction and excuse.

And when the opportunity arises for a more direct return, it can go terribly wrong.

So it is with “I Used to Go Here,” a new comedy written and directed by Kris Rey. Starring Gillian Jacobs, it’s a clever, cringe-y look at how the past is rarely as neat as we remember it to be, a chance for one woman to lose herself in a time of wide-eyed optimism about the future and briefly forget about the harsh truths of the now.

It’s also a movie about what it means to fail – in a job or a relationship or any endeavor really – and to come to terms with that failure, as well as a bit of a meditation on the complexity that comes with making a career out of creativity. It is heartfelt and smart and quite funny, and while it does misfire a couple of times, the pros far outstrip the cons.

Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is a writer living in Chicago. Her first book, titled “Seasons Passed,” has just been released … and it isn’t going well. In fact, the response is so disinterested that her publisher straight-up cancels her scheduled book tour. All of her friends – including BFF Laura (Zoe Chao, “The High Note”) – are starting families while she has broken up with her fiancé, who doesn’t want to talk to her and may have already moved on.

So when an opportunity to escape her current reality arises, she leaps at it.

Kate’s collegiate mentor was English professor David Kirkpatrick (Jemaine Clement, TV’s “What We Do in the Shadows”); he’s one of the biggest reasons she became a writer. When he invites her to return to campus to do a reading, she sees it as a chance to get away from her current struggles for a bit. The idea of returning to the old stomping grounds as a conquering hero offers an opportunity to soothe her bruised ego.

She arrives to discover that she’s staying across the street from the house she and her friends once lined in when they were students. She meets the current residents – an easygoing bunch of oddballs named Animal (Forrest Goodluck, “Blood Quantum”), Hugo (Josh Wiggins, “Greyhound”) and Tall Brandon (Brandon Daley in his feature debut) – and is generally swept up in nostalgia.

Said nostalgia only intensifies when after the reading, she sticks around for the weekend. Even as she struggles to shut out the noise of her life, she’s drawn into an ever-increasing degree of nonsense inside the campus bubble – some of it revolving around misplaced jealousy regarding Kirkpatrick’s current star, a talented young poet named April (Hannah Marks, “Dinner in America”).

But even as she relives her perceived glory days, Kate still must find a way to deal with the consequences – deserved or not – of her current life. And while the past is a nice place to visit, it is wildly unhealthy to live there.

“I Used to Go Here” is a charmingly shaggy movie, an undeniably good hang. Returning to a place that holds so much meaning could be emotionally fraught – and we get some of that here, for sure – but Rey treats it with a self-aware gentleness. The laughs are genuine and the emotions are earned, even when things get a touch narratively bumpy along the way.

Rey and company do a wonderful job capturing the easy camaraderie of a certain kind of collegiate social circle. These kids aren’t the hardcore partiers or bookworms, but the ones in the middle, the tight-knit group of friends with shared interests and ambitions. There’s an honesty to both the setting and the performances that gave me a tough of nostalgia myself, actually.

The whole mentor-mentee inappropriate romance angle is something we’ve seen before, and “I Used to Go Here” doesn’t reinvent the wheel (though the energy and charm Jacobs and especially Clement bring to the table certainly set that wheel to spinning a bit faster); it’s interesting to see how smoothly they portray that nostalgic tendency to fall back into familiar roles.

As I said before, this movie is a good hang. The primary reason it is a good hang is the strength of its cast. Jacobs is exceptional as Kate, giving a nuanced and funny performance of someone seeking solace in the past from an unpleasant present. There’s a vulnerability that shines through. Clement is perfectly smug as the longtime English professor, presenting an exact recreation of a dude every lit undergrad will find familiar.

And props to ALL of the college kids, who give quality performances. Wiggins lends Hugo a fragile self-possession and a quick wit. Goodluck’s Animal practically glows with good-natured bro energy. Daley’s Tall Brandon is charmingly weird. And Marks is magnetic as April; there’s a real charisma to her that makes her extremely watchable. Oh, and big shout-out to Rammel Chan, whose portrayal of Elliott will feel very real to any and all campus Student Activities volunteers out there.

Again, “I Used to Go Here” has its hiccups. The pacing’s a bit wobbly in spots – the movie’s middle third meanders. There are a couple of narrative choices that are a little jarring – no spoilers, but there are moments that are … off. But those issues are more than compensated for by the script’s cleverness and the cast’s charm.

Driven by excellent performances and a sense of place that feels both distinct and true, “I Used to Go Here” serves as a sharp, heartfelt comedic reminder that not only can you not return to your glory days, but that those days might not have been all that glorious to begin with.

[3.5 out of 5]

Last modified on Thursday, 06 August 2020 12:11

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