A return to campus is always a return to the familiar. We see the friends we’ve missed, the places we’ve been thinking about and the routine we’ve been craving. That said, to say that this year will be different is an understatement. It’s difficult right now to imagine the normal college experience. Imagine what returning to the University will feel like in a year, or five, or fifteen.
Watching “I Used to Go Here” in this context was interesting. Kris Rey’s (“Unexpected”) indie flick, which was supposed to appear at this year’s South by Southwest before it got canceled, follows struggling writer Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs, “Community”) as she returns to her alma mater in Carbondale, IL. Kate’s crumbling life is immediately established — within the first few minutes, she talks to her publishers about her canceled book tour while toting a box of invitations to her canceled wedding. Going back to her old university not only distracts her from her failing book sales, it draws her back into her college days.
It’s clear that Kate’s alma mater awakens a deep nostalgia — she begins every conversation with “I used to,” as in “I used to live here,” “I used to dance in this room,” etc. She reunites with her old mentor, creative writing instructor David Kirkpatrick (Jermaine Clement, “What We Do in the Shadows”). She runs into old classmates, played by Jorma Taccone (“Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping”) of The Lonely Island, and Kate Micucci (“The Little Hours”) in a short but memorable cameo. She visits her old house where she and her friends lived while they were students, and eventually befriends the kids who live there now. All throughout, she gives updates to her (very pregnant) friend Laura (Zoë Chao, “Love Life”), who chats with her about all of their old college spots but also serves as a reminder: Kate is an adult who has been out of college for a long time.
With the nostalgia comes what I can only describe as a regression in behavior. Within the first day of returning to college, Kate parties with the kids who live in her old house. Her realignment with David indicates a mentor-mentee relationship that is complicated at best and problematic at worst, and she finds herself jealous of April (Hannah Marks, “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency”), David’s star student. She makes cringeworthy and juvenile choices, because something about a college campus reignites the impulses of her college days. But this is apparently what can happen when you come back to college: You look around for the things that are the most familiar, and you start to act like the child you once were. Kate keeps assuring herself that it isn’t weird; maybe it wouldn’t be as strange if I were older, but as it stands, watching a 37-year-old woman sneaking out of a window to go on a midnight adventure with a bunch of 20-year-olds is weird.
“I Used to Go Here” is well-conceived and generally well done. There are funny moments and excellent characters, like the enthusiastic and delightfully sweet grad student Elliot (Rammel Chan, “The Red Line”) and Mrs. Beeter (Cindy Gold, “The Drunk”), the disgruntled bed and breakfast owner. Kate’s story is interspersed with entertaining moments that capture the college experience: Moments like the drunk girls sitting on the sidewalk, the students climbing fences while slightly impaired and the painful politeness of an undergraduate creative writing class all ring true. The acting strengthens the film even when the writing feels clunky, particularly that of Jacobs, who is charming even in some of Kate’s dumber decisions, and Clement, who finds a balance with portraying someone we want to like without making it easy to ignore some of his concerning behavior.
Still, it’s difficult to appreciate a movie like “I Used to Go Here” right now. I’m still in the thick of the college experience, it’s difficult to imagine the future right now when the present is so in flux. That said, watching this film while still in college is like playing a fun game of “will that be me in 15 years?” Some things are easier to imagine than others: A moment at the beginning where Kate takes a photo with her pregnant friends while holding her book in lieu of a baby is something I can see for myself. Yet the way she acts when she returns to campus, the surprisingly fast regression in sensibility, is something that I can’t see. But who knows? Maybe I’ll return to U of M one day, visit all my old haunts and talk to kids half my age about how much everything has changed. Maybe someday I’ll find myself reminiscing about the good old college days. It is nice to know that, no matter what happens, there will still be parts of my campus in fifteen years that will fill me with nostalgia and remind me of the experiences and community I built here. In the meantime, I’m just trying to make it through the semester.