Likable enough, but a little too tame to make much of an impact, Kris Rey’s slight — and slightly autobiographical — “you can’t go home again” comedy “I Used to Go Here” was supposed to debut at this year’s SXSW Film Festival, only to have its premiere canceled at the last minute by the coronavirus pandemic. When Rey hatched the idea for the movie, her fourth feature — in which a floundering young novelist returns to her alma mater for an ego boost — she was still going by her married name, Kris Swanberg; she has since split with then-husband Joe.
That makes at least two ways Rey’s already personal project has evolved to more closely mirror her own life, and while any additional hurdle in the uphill path of an indie filmmaker can jeopardize the whole endeavor, this one survived that much more relevant. The movie marks a comeback project of sorts for a director no one thought of as down, showing even more mainstream potential than her pregnancy-themed “Unexpected,” which played Sundance back in 2015.
Rey’s proxy here is a 35-year-old writer named Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), who should be celebrating the publication of her first novel, “Seasons Passed,” but instead learns that the marketing department has pulled the plug on her book tour — just like her fiancé pulled the plug on their wedding. Cue sad-trombone sound effect.
To deepen Kate’s disappointment, Rey sends the character to her bestie’s baby shower, where she takes a photo with the expectant mom (Zoë Chao, a scene-stealer on speed dial) and two more of her peers, all of them pregnant. Kate is the only one without a kid, but she does have her book, which should be some consolation — only she hates the cover, and truth be told, she’s not so hot on all the words inside.
That’s why it’s such a relief to get a call from David Kirkpatrick (“Flight of the Conchords” co-creator Jemaine Clement), her old college writing professor and former crush, who invites her back to (the fictional) Illinois University for a reading. The power dynamics between them are more balanced now, but it’s still kinda icky — although the #MeToo movement hasn’t really caught up with the phenomenon of professor-student hanky-panky that exists on American campuses. (A proper exposé would be more damaging to the country’s higher-education industry than the current COVID pandemic.) Rey is hardly ambivalent about the subject, although Kate comes across as pathetic for being interested, despite Clement’s smarmy antics.
Still, it’s no wonder Kate’s so glad to be back on campus in small-town Carbondale, which represents a comfortable cocoon for young creatives — what Kate nostalgically describes as “a safe place to try things out.” Fifteen years after graduating, it feels great to be welcomed back as “an actual writer.” She may not feel like much of a success, but she certainly enjoys the attention. The school puts her up in a bed-and-breakfast across the street from the house where she lived during her time at Illinois U., and she has fun flirting with a dimpled student named Hugo (Josh Wiggins). Meanwhile, his girlfriend (Hannah Marks) makes Kate jealous for a range of reasons, leading to a few regrettable decisions during her short time in town.
This is the kind of movie where we’re meant to squirm at uncomfortable situations, although Rey’s overall tone is entirely too perky for that, what with all its bright colors and broad sitcom setups (e.g., Kate stuck hiding under a frat-house desk as a kid who calls himself “Animal” brings a hookup back to his room). In recent years, shows such as “Fleabag” and “Girls” have broken ground with their flawed female protagonists, and while Rey works well with actors, Jacobs proves a relatively vanilla leading lady. She’s constantly smiling and apologizing, which makes her a weaker and less challenging character. Then again, Rey’s voice has more in common with Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor than the disruptive women writer-directors of her generation.
“I Used to Go Here” ought to have been wild and (at least a little) anarchic, like last year’s “Booksmart,” but instead it plays like a more professional version of the DIY comedies that launched Rey’s career, back when she seemed like the more disciplined of the two directors bearing the Swanberg name. It’s remarkably similar to Alex Karpovsky’s “Red Flag” in particular, another movie sparked by screening a tiny indie film for appreciative college audiences. Such crowds have a way of elevating starter filmmakers to celebrity status, and Rey has said that the experience of screening “Unexpected” on campuses inspired this project.
Her instincts served her better on that film. “I Used to Go Here” looks more polished — a step in the right direction — but it’s also safer, and content to be imperfect. There’s a funnier version of nearly every joke or a more poignant insight waiting easily within reach. Rather than striving to find the better option, she does the equivalent of self-publishing (well, not quite: the Lonely Island team serve as producers, and must have punched things up a bit). Rey has a movie to show for it, which is more than most can say, but it’s sad that Kate’s assessment of her own novel — “I think it could be better” — goes for the film as well.