One wonders if Gillian Jacobs is not exorcising some Community demons by taking the lead role in I Used to Go Here, which works as an extension of her name-making sitcom persona.
While stars of television drama often make a fairly seamless transition to the big screen, stars of iconic sitcoms can find the move difficult. Community, arguably, carved a niche in popular culture over the last decade as one of America’s biggest sitcoms, and Jacobs was a consistent part of the ensemble across all six seasons. With the persistently rumoured big screen version still mere fantasy, Jacobs hasn’t had the broader platform to portray her character Britta Perry that could have boosted her status as an actor. She has worked steadily developing her own projects as a director and appearing on both the big and small screen, but Kris Rey’s feature is the first example of Jacobs carrying a movie.
It makes a degree of sense that Jacobs chooses to parlay a proportion of the Britta character into I Used to Go Here, where she plays newly-published fiction writer Kate Conklin, a woman buoyed by her achievement but losing at life. Her book tour has been cancelled due to poor sales, the New York Times gives her a scathing review, and she’s recently split from an unseen fiancé who appears to have very swiftly moved on. Listless, Kate is invited by David Fitzpatrick, her charming writing professor at her Illinois alma mater (played by a roguish Jemaine Clement), to do a reading of her book and observe the creative writing students in his class with a view to taking a permanent position. Fuelled in part by the student crush she had on David, returns to her old yards, only to realise that the halcyon youth of college and promise have faded, and the experience reinforces her own uncertain place in the world.
This description does not match the tone of I Used to Go Here, which rather than a dour existential examination of youth’s decay, instead projects rather a hopeful message wrapped around a leisurely, relaxed sensibility, if boasting a slightly uneven tone at points.
The principal reason I Used to Go Here works is because Kate is a realistic avatar for the pre-middle aged weariness of creatives living in a cutthroat, corporate driven world. She is a good natured person balanced on the edge of an unfeeling abyss.
While this sounds dramatic, Rey’s script is built around the idea of slipping casually into what could be perceived as a life-shattering failure. As someone who has written a book, I can appreciate the constant, anxious awareness a writer feels that what they have penned is not good enough, and if that is ever reinforced then it works to damage your own sense of self-belief. Kate begins the film as someone whose self-belief is taking a repeated pummelling, from failing book sales to a failed relationship, and Jacobs nicely encapsulates not just the sense of malaise about how to move forward with that as a late-thirtysomething, but how easily life can simply sweep you along that path. Placing Kate back in a world once filled with promise, at the beginning of a journey to becoming a writer that has ended up in disappointment, serves as a poignant mirror in that regard.
Rey’s message is simple: the past doesn’t have the answers you’re looking for. Kate does her best to fit it and engender herself to the generation under her, a collection of perfectly friendly early twenty somethings who like and respect her status as someone who ‘made it’ (when Jacobs’ portrayal suggests she most certainly hasn’t), but she still stands out. Nor does she fit the cynical world inhabited by Fitzpatrick, the older professor (though Clement is only eight years older than Jacobs in reality) to whom Kate remains latently attracted to, and wistful that he never engaged in a dalliance with her youthful self at a point where he retained ethics and morals. His is Rey’s cautionary tale, not to mention a pointed example of quietly toxic masculinity at work; the moment you stop believing you can improve, or be better, you lose a little of your soul.
This is not to say anyone in I Used to Go Here can be characterised as a villain, as such. Even Fitzpatrick comes off more as a pathetic figure by the end, someone himself quite lost in a loveless marriage, as Rey’s film (buoyed by Jacobs’ performance) is a character piece about affable, academic people doing the best they can. Even edgy, intense creative ingenue April (Hannah Marks), who in a lesser film would be characterised as a rival, instead rather serves as a point of revelation for Kate. “It’s all like possibility for you and I’ve already fucked up.” Kate’s honesty and willingness to learn engenders her as a protagonist, and Jacobs plays her as a Britta with the edges sanded off. Community proved her gift for often quite zany comedy and timing, but Jacobs is equally adept at nostalgic wisteria, at finding the awkward personal humour within social situations.
Ultimately, the not-cloying sweetness of the film carries the day, even when it veers occasionally into caper territory and attempts to counterbalance the character-focused comedy with situations (such as breaking into someone’s house) that could have been pulled from a different picture. It works as the study of a woman at a crossroads, buffeted by the weight and expectations of an unceasing, off-screen machine pulling her toward acceptance and the grounded, homely realities of family and friendship. Never too cynical or sentimental for its own good, Kris Rey strikes a neat balance here. She manages to make you laugh while equally make you hope that Kate Conklin, like the characters in her book ‘Seasons Passed’, holding hands on the cover she hates, gets a happy ending.
I Used to Go Here will appeal to anyone who remembers better days, and needs reminding that more can still come, if we’re ready to face them.
I Used to Go Here is out on Digital HD from Signature Entertainment on 14th September.
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