Failure is an underexplored subject in American cinema. The struggles and joys of achieving success are portrayed in blockbuster after blockbuster, while the unique phenomenon of processing failure and tentatively beginning the process of moving beyond it is less common to encounter in a mainstream American movie. Thankfully, Kris Rey’s new film I Used to Go Here (2020) explores the theme of failure with a degree of honesty that is refreshing.
I Used to Go Here is about Kate Conklin (Gillian Jacobs), a writer in her mid-30s whose first novel is not selling well. Eager to escape the news that her publisher has canceled her book tour, Conklin accepts an invitation from her favorite college professor David (Jemaine Clement) to give a reading at her alma mater. Once there, Conklin starts to reckon with her professional failure as she bonds with a group of quirky college students who live in her former home.
The way that Conklin deals with the failure of her novel is reminiscent of the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Jacobs (who had earlier explored complex emotions in a collegiate setting on the cult sitcom Community) excels at showcasing Conklin’s emotional changes as she processes the fact that her life is not turning out to be what she thought it would. Jacobs ably brings Rey’s complex character to empathetic life and reminds audiences that she deserves more lead roles that are this good.
In addition to dealing with the theme of failure through Conklin’s emotional journey, Rey also bakes it into the narrative structure of her film. In a more conventional story, Conklin’s former classmate Bradley Cooper (Jorma Taccone, who is also one of the film’s executive producers), who she encounters in a bookstore, would become an important part of her story. Their dinner together would ignite a series of conversations that remind her of who she wanted to be in college, and that she could still become that person. He would probably become her love interest. In Rey’s hands, however, Cooper vanishes after his second scene, which reveals him to be a creep. This subversion of a common narrative trope makes the audience share in Conklin’s disappointment and is yet another failure that Conklin experiences, albeit one that is due entirely to Cooper and not Conklin.
That is part of the lesson that Conklin learns, one that feels relevant: sometimes terrible things happen. Conklin doesn’t want to write a terrible book, but she does. She doesn’t want to learn that her former mentor David is sleeping with a student, but she finds that out with the help of her new friends. You can’t run away from your failures or those of people who inspired you, Rey seems to say. Sometimes you have to acknowledge that something has not turned out well, and use that knowledge to do better the next time. It’s a tough lesson to hear in the wake of a pandemic whose casualties have been heightened by governmental incompetence, but acknowledging those governmental failures in the way that Conklin acknowledges her professional failure and taking action to vote out the leaders responsible for the magnitude of this tragedy could be the first step to recovery.
I Used to Go Here takes an interesting approach to depicting how people process failure. Jacobs’s great performance and Rey’s honest writing remind audiences that, in the hands of the right filmmaker, failure can be as fascinating to watch in a film as success. Let us hope that Rey has many more successes in her career so that she can keep exploring such fascinating and underrepresented themes, including but not limited to failure.
Join IU Cinema for a virtual conversation and interactive Q&A with writer/director Kris Rey on October 13 as part of the Jorgensen Guest Filmmaker Series. Rey’s latest feature, I Used to Go Here, is currently available — free of charge! — in the IU Cinema Virtual Screening Room until October 14. Only those registered for the October 13 Jorgensen Program with Rey will have access to the film.
Jesse Pasternack is a graduate of Indiana University. During his time at IU, Jesse was the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He also wrote about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse has been a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and is a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. An aspiring professional writer-director, his own film work has appeared at Campus Movie Fest and the Anthology Film Archives in New York City.