I Used To Go Here is now available to rent or buy on digital platforms.
By Palmer Rubin
One of the biggest possible pitfalls a movie can fall into is writing about yourself and your own life and writing about artists creating art, wanting to create art, anything to that effect. There are a million films about both subjects, most of them are godawful. Oftentimes films about artists creating art can try to make themselves critic-proof by making their respective insecurity about what they’re creating into the heart of the picture, hoping critics will feel too bad for them to be vicious. I don’t especially want to be vicious, because when I Used To Go Here isn’t feeling sorry for itself is when it’s at its strongest, and there’s a couple potential ideas that are so strong that I wish those had been the core of the film. It is clearly a personal story to writer and director Kris Rey, who went to the university this film takes place in (slightly altered to avoid a lawsuit, I reckon).
I want to be a little considerate when writing about it since so many other reviews frame Kris Rey primarily as Joe Swanberg’s ex-wife. If you’re not aware of who he is, that’s one of the architects of the mid-2000s filmmaking “movement” mumblecore. If you ever saw anything by Lena Dunham (probably the most famous proponent of that era), that’s essentially what it is. Rich white people in studio apartments complaining about piddling domestic problems for hours on end, basically Friends for the type of people who will loudly judge you for whatever your artistic tastes might be in place of a personality. Mumblecore is as navel-gazing as filmmaking gets, utterly devoid of effort or care, a vacuous void of ego where very few survive. You get the impression its creators cared more about the aesthetic of filmmaking rather than saying anything meaningful, and since Kris Rey got her start by acting in many of them, you get the impression she feels that way too. To sum it up all up: it’s the type of people who will loudly rant about “my vision” because they just want to boss people around for money. I’ve been around those types too much in my past, and I think we’ve all encountered that kind of person. Now imagine that in cinematic form. There you go.
It was celebrated for its comparative low budgets and how it stood in sheer contrast to blockbuster filmmaking, but such ventures have flamed out pretty huge over the past several years and you don’t get many of them anymore. I mention all this because I’m not especially fond of Joe Swanberg as a filmmaker (most entertaining was the story of him setting up a boxing match with a critic who insulted one of his films, no I’m not kidding), and also because most reviews I’ve seen of this frame it around him rather than his ex-wife, which I feel isn’t especially fair. To I Used To Go Here’s credit, even as it has some of the hallmarks of a mumblecore film (relatively affluent main characters with no huge pressing issues in the wake of…this year, some aimless scenes that don’t go anywhere, lots of neuroticism), there is actually a sense of propulsion and momentum here that the Joe Swanbergs of the world aren’t capable of. It has more to say than just navel-gazing, even when it falls into that trap every so often, and there are things I think should have been changed, but it’s got its heart in the right place.
Ostensibly, Gillian Jacobs stars as an analog for the film’s writer/director, whose first published book completely bombs and she’s forced into a book tour and writer’s retreat at her alma mater in order to compensate for it. Organized by her former professor (played by Jemaine Clement playing much more restrained than he usually is, though he’s quite good here), she begins to connect with his current students, who resemble a much younger version of herself in a way. Shenanigans ensue as Jacobs tries to reconnect with her youth and tries to navigate how much her old stomping grounds have changed.
If that sounds familiar, it’s because it is, though it does have the added benefit of zagging when you expect it to zig. Jacobs is very game for this kind of role and it’s exactly in her wheelhouse, so she adds a lot of pathos and fits the tone of the film very well. The rest of the cast are an assortment of colorful characters (to get a notion of the much sillier film this could’ve been, the standout by far is a quirky guy by the name of Tall Brandon, played by Brandon Daley with pure deadpan wit) who all take their piddling domestic problems to be the same level of extreme as Jacobs’ character’s career collapsing in realtime. But isn’t it, though? At first, you get the inclination the film is mocking its younger characters for taking their relationships too seriously and being too neurotic about their writing (it does accurately reflect the kind of egos that start clashing in any artsy type class, we’re all deeply insecure, self-loathing people at our cores). There’s a more subtle thing going on here, which distinguishes this from many of the other navel-gazers that have come before it, that maybe navel-gazing comes with the territory of trying to distinguish yourself as an artist. As annoying as it can be that the film falls into this trap pretty frequently, with Jacobs insulting herself and another character immediately validating her like so many other movies have, it’s also one of the few to express some self-awareness at the insecurity that leads people to seek out artistic ventures for a living. I’d be a hypocrite if I didn’t pretend that everything I write, even this, is not born out of a place of deep insecurity. How to find that sweet spot between introspection and neuroticism, how to show you’re able to take criticism without becoming emotionally draining, that is an incredibly tough tightrope to walk on. I don’t think this film always succeeds at that, but it does try to walk on the tightrope rather than pull what most mumblecore filmmakers pulled and defiantly jumped off out of spite.
That being said, there’s a couple of tangents it goes on that I wish it had spent way more time with. A film I saw this repeatedly compared to was Liberal Arts, a film directed by Josh Radnor (best known as Ted Mosby from that one misogynist sitcom I can’t stand). That film is identical to this, except Radnor stars and directs himself as a professor trying to sleep with an underage girl, and it’s just a really gross film by a really gross person (and badly made, besides, as if that means anything). This goes into that territory, as it repeatedly implies a past flirtation between Jacobs and Clement’s characters, and I was pleased to see the film approaching the same subject material with an understanding of the power dynamic that professors use to take advantage of students. It’s a shame it’s a subplot when it could have been an interesting contrast with the writing career that drives the film forward. In comparing Clement to Jacobs, and the way both engage with eager young writers unsure of their paths in life, those early critiques can set the rest of someone’s career. Jacobs’ failure seems to be marked by a fear of being totally vulnerable and openness as an artist (need to stress I’m referring to her character, called Kate Conklin, and not Jacobs herself), and yet these pretentious creative writing babes are just figuring it out themselves. That they’re all collectively strong performances by up-and-comers like Forrest Goodluck (phenomenal in the underappreciated The Miseducation of Cameron Post), Khloe Janel, Rammel Chan, and Hannah Marks helps considerably to making them pretty engaging even when they’re given little to do.
I do like that it’s about a writer who isn’t magically considered to be the greatest novelist who ever lived. Ostensibly it’s a film about a decent writer, and more stories should be about people who are just decent rather than outright geniuses. Recent online discourse about bestselling authors like J.K. Rowling and John Boyne prove that those who get to live out their writing dreams often live them out for incredibly arbitrary reasons to begin with, that this has never been a meritocracy, that any success we achieve is by a roll of the dice. That the film is at least willing to admit that, in spite of its navel-gazing and its characters doing a lot of telling and not very much showing, that is something. I would at least say that Kris Rey ought to make more films, but it sure as hell isn’t up to someone like me whether or not she will. For all the issues I had with it, even as its parts are stronger apart than as a collective whole, I can’t say there’s a boring moment to be found in it. Lord knows it’s tough enough figuring out how to write a review of the damn thing without worrying whether or not it’ll be a good enough review of the movie. Art of any kind is so goddamn difficult to create. I’ll say this to you, the person reading this: it’s fucking difficult. Everything I write here or elsewhere is goddamn difficult to write by its very nature of wanting to be perfect and something you’ll enjoy. That’s a pressure I’m exclusively putting on myself, and I’m sure in your artistic endeavors, it’s the pressure that often makes you too afraid to complete something and show it to others.
I give I Used To Go Here a B-.