'I Used to Go Here' an observant Carbondale-set film comedy
"I Used to Go Here" - ★ ★ ★
There must be a German word for it: That feeling of instant familiarity and creeping displacement that sets upon the young-middle-aged when they revisit a place of their not-so-distant youth.
It could be their childhood bedroom. Or a once-favorite bar. Or the town where they went to college -- like Carbondale, Illinois, the setting for writer-director Kris Rey's "I Used to Go Here," an observantly funny comedy that exquisitely captures the emotional weather of simultaneously belonging and unbelonging.
Gillian Jacobs plays Kate, a 35-year-old author whose first novel has just been published. She should be over the moon, but her world is crashing around her ears: Her book tour has just been canceled, all her friends are pregnant and she can't stop checking her ex's Instagram.
Perfect timing, then, for Kate to be invited back to campus (presumably Southern Illinois University, although it's never named out loud), where she is greeted like a celebrity and asked to give a triumphant reading in class taught by her onetime mentor, a charismatic professor played with flawless self-regard by Jemaine Clement. Terrorized by the martinet who runs the bed-and-breakfast where she's staying, Kate finds fellowship across the street, in a house where she lived 15 years ago, when the future held promise instead of shame, confusion and disappointment.
To a 35-year-old, 15 years is almost nothing: Kate feels like she fits right in with the guys now living in her former abode, and she pounds beers and smokes with practiced nonchalance. To them, of course, she's much older, but they gamely allow her into their circle. Rey conveys that psychic divide with fluency and forgiving humor in "I Used to Go Here," as well as the double-consciousness of being treated like a hero in your old hometown while secretly nursing the knowledge that you're an abject failure in everything other than faking success.
Bolstered by an ensemble of game young actors including Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Brandon Daley and Rammel Chan, Jacobs delivers a winning portrait of a young woman trapped between two worlds, both inside and out; there's a wonderful shot of her posing with her friends at a baby shower, holding her new book in front of her like her own baby bump. Thankfully, Rey avoids saddling Kate with the biological-clock trope, giving the character her own specific set of doubts and ambivalences.
Partway through "I Used to Go Here," a subplot involving a thoroughly unconvincing caper threatens to derail the film into an awkward screwball comedy. But, for the most part, Rey keeps a steady hand on the film's core competencies. Like "Wonder Boys," which it wistfully evokes, Rey's film works best as a study in the kaleidoscopic vagaries of time, which somehow forces us to age even while we stay the same.
With modesty, precision and wry compassion, "I Used to Go Here" limns human nature at its most contradictory and indefinable, offering a textbook example -- at least until the right German word comes along.
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Starring: Jillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement
Directed by: Kris Rey
Other: A Gravitas Ventures release. Available on demand. Not rated; contains sexual situations and college partying. 80 minutes