Imagine visiting the house where you lived as a child and standing next to the marks on the doorway where your parents measured your growth each year. All around us are invisible marks that measure where we are and every so often, usually unexpectedly, we get a chance to see exactly how far we have — and haven’t gone. Whether we want to or not.
Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is having one of those moments. She is adrift after the publication of her first novel and a break-up with her fiancé. Her book tour has been cancelled and the attempts at reassurance from her editors (“It’s a symptom of the times. No one wants to spend money on promotion anymore….Maybe if there’s a good review in the New York Times….”) are not at all reassuring. When she gets a voicemail from her favorite college professor inviting her to do a reading at her alma mater, it is a welcome retreat from worry about how the book is being received and why her ex is not returning her calls. Not to mention attending a baby shower where she is asked to pose with three pregnant friends, holding her novel as her version of what they are producing.
Maybe she thinks she will feel safe back at the school, or get a chance to reconnect with herself as a person with possibilities and ambitions. Possibly there might be a second chance with the professor (Jemaine Clement as David), who seems to share her sense of missed opportunity. But it is not so much that, as Thomas Wolfe said, you can’t go home again, as that Kate does not know it is up to her to figure out what her home is.
At first, she is so glad to get away and to be treated like a little bit of a celebrity by her amiable student escort, Elliot (Rammel Chan) and the students at the reading that it takes a little while before she begins to feel dislocated. The school puts her up at a bed and breakfast that happens to be next door to the house she once shared with her friends. She goes over to investigate. “I used to dance in this room like 15 years ago,” she tells a student who lives there now. “I was in kindergarten 15 years ago,” he responds.
Kate is having an Alice in Wonderland-style experience, including an assortment of odd characters, some who challenge her, and ingestion of substances that distort her perception. The owner of the bed and breakfast is as imperious as the Queen of Hearts, though instead of shouting “Off with her head!” she just says sharply that there is only one key and therefore Kate must wear it around her neck. When she indicates that she is not leaving until Kate puts it on, Kate obeys, but when David teases her about it, she takes it off, and of course she loses it, which will create problems for the rest of her stay. She (metaphorically) shrinks and grows depending who she is talking to. “Do you think it is like ethical for me to do drugs with you?” she asks a student at her former house when she accepts an invitation to their party. Who is the grown-up in that exchange? We might have an idea, but Kate does not.
When she gives feedback to a student on her writing it is not based on what would make the story clearer but on what would appeal to a publisher. The student says no. She is going to create her own press. Being true to her instincts and her story is what matters to her, not the cachet of a traditional publishing house that could just cancel her book tour as they did Kate’s. Again, she is more of an adult in that exchange than Kate is, more sure of who she is. As Kate explains that “people want something dramatic, exciting, and bold” in a novel but she chose to write about restraint because “life is restrained,” we wonder whether it only seems that way to someone who has restrained herself too much.
In one of the film’s best scenes, Kate accidentally interrupts a couple about to have sex by cyber-stalking her ex under their bed. Instead of getting angry they use their Generation Z expertise to help her figure out who the girl showing up in his photos is. “See if she’s tagged.” But the story meanders and then it sags when Kate becomes so identified with the students living in her old house that she leads them on an excursion to see whether the girl who broke up with one of them is sleeping with David. Jacobs does the best she can with an underwritten, passive character, and it is always a pleasure to see Clement, even as a character whose swings of mood are too much for even a gifted performer to handle. Writer/director Kris Rey has a perceptive eye and a gift for creating vivid supporting characters that make us look forward to what she does next.