South by Southwest 2020 was one of the first great catastrophes to be averted.
With only a few days’ notice, as the horizon grayed with potential for mass disaster, hopes for the vast fest were let go. On the film side alone, dozens of features and shorts were orphaned from aspiration, their debut, their celebration, their long-held hope to rise above the programming and distribution fray. That was so long ago, those five months, as today we tally postponements (Oscars, Olympics) and outright cancellations (Telluride over Labor Day, the Rose Parade in 2021).
But those movies that were ready for perusal and possible purchase are finished and finding their way to the marketplace, even as the potential for other, smaller American pictures to get produced in coming months and years remains in an imagined, even imaginary place.
Here’s a terrific palate cleanser left on that Texas platter: Chicago filmmaker Kris Rey’s “I Used To Go Here” is a college comedy, kind of, and grown up, very much so, grounded in the world of several generations who lived in 2019 yet looking toward a future, moving past emotional shellshock, assembled with the understated, even serene confidence of an experienced filmmaker who has moved from documentary, observational beginnings to cleanly, keenly devised work. Gillian Jacobs plays a debut novelist in her mid-thirties whose life is akilter on its way to akimbo even from the opening shot along Western Avenue in Lincoln Square. We quickly learn that a marriage that would have been celebrated at Revolution Brewing is dashed, and portent lines up eagerly for Kate Conklin from there. Momentary distraction lies in an invitation to read from her novel in Carbondale, where she had been an undergraduate. Gentle complications and a teeming ensemble cast ensue in Rey’s knowing enlivening of the limitations of the John Hughes template, but also an extension of her work that came before.
“I Used to Go Here” is Rey’s fourth feature as writer-director (after 2009’s “It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home,” 2014’s “Empire Builder,” and 2015’s “Unexpected”) and she served time as actor and producer at the forge of the clumsily dubbed “mumblecore” early-century movement of chatty low-to-no-budget movies of deceptively austere production values. (The many listed producers of the more expansive “I Used To Go Here” include the Lonely Island crew: Jorma Taccone, Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Becky Sloviter.)
Like Rey’s “Unexpected,” “I Used To Go Here” is laudably brief (each runs just under ninety minutes). That’s a virtue drawn from two decades of experience, as well as an unprepossessing, direct visual approach. From the very opening, when the camera makes its gentle moves, pulling back to appraise a street, a stairwell, an apartment, it does so with grace. It’s a lovely style, a serene economy that suits the summery, simmering settings that swaddle her quizzical characters, readily confounded, young and older alike, from ground-zero Chicago to small-town Carbondale. Kate needs a crossroads instead of a pile-up of crisis, and she arrives at her next mess reading a paragraph from her novel that tumbles directly into cringe.
Her mentor, a professor of low odor played by an agreeably rumpled and mumbly Jemaine Clement, invited Kate. He tells a student to lop off an opening page: “We should just—be in it. Be in it already,” a taste of 1970s “Be Here Now” that the roundelay of characters struggle and largely fail to live. The actors are lovingly cast and given their moments to pause as much as to shine. They’re effortlessly funny.
Along with shaggy-dog laughs drawn from body language and line readings, thematic throwaways land, including Kate’s walk through town capturing a cute banner on a light standard: “CARBONDALE: Find Your Style Here.” Did she? Are these students finding theirs? Can Kate still find her style?
Cellphones and text messages and lopsided memories poke through the anxious jabber of characters who are sometimes high and who forage dramatically, to little success, for that elusive cleanly parsed thought. The little is large. Rey is a miniaturist who has found an apt canvas: an ensemble comedy of a fish-back-into-water that gently nudges and elasticates its college-town characters.
The ending—sex is the sound of two sets of lips in the envelope of near dark—wakes to a sky of stars Kate herself glued up nearly two decades before, a gesture of transposition and transport as bittersweet as a bit from “Groundhog Day.” It’s a return to the room for Kate Conklin but Rey goes beyond that simple symbol to characters talking to each other, expressing feelings of hopes dashed, of failure acknowledged, spoken aloud, and aired in sunlight and breeze to blow the past few nights away.
“It’s all like possibility for you…” Kate says, exhausted and envious, weighted by knowledge and envy in the first of the succession of tentative endings, each with undertow, and arriving at a single, sneaky wave that crests exquisitely.
The Chicago debut of “I Used To Go Here” is presented by the Music Box and Elevated Films, Wednesday, July 29 at ChiTown Movies Drive-In Theater, 2343 South Throop (tickets here) and opens at the Music Box and via Music Box Virtual Cinema on Friday, July 31 (tickets here).