It’s imperative that we establish a basic truth right off the bat. Maybe this is common knowledge and I’ve been living under a rock. It’s possible. I prefer to believe, however, that like me, most people have no idea just how integral architecture is to the city of Columbus, Indiana. But let’s be clear: architecture is a big friggin’ deal in Columbus, Indiana. Who knew. This is an invaluable bit of trivia to have up your sleeve going into the mesmerizing new film Columbus.
Columbus functions as one thing above all: a showcase for three major talents. In front of the camera, we have the two charming leads, John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. Richardson plays Casey, a post-highschooler working as a librarian (and taking care of her mom) in her hometown of Columbus, Indiana. Casey is an architecture nerd – that’s a thing you can be in Columbus, Indiana – but doesn’t give serious thought toward a future in the field, instead focusing all of her energy on tending to her mom. Cho is Jin, a Korean book translator and the son of a renowned professor of architecture. When, while visiting Columbus, the professor suddenly goes into a coma, Jin flies in from Korea to be near him.
On the other side of the camera, we have Kogonada, the director of Columbus. Kogonada is a thrillingly deliberate filmmaker. He uses long, still takes to incredibly powerful aesthetic effect. Often in Columbus the frame just sits there, stationary, for what feels like minutes, as we watch a couple having a conversation in a cleverly-placed mirror, or Casey pacing around outside, smoking, anxiously rattling off rapid-fire architecture jibber-jabber to herself. Not to mention the copious amount of Columbus, Indiana architecture-porn Kogonada cuts to in-between scenes. It’s all so beautifully composed that what the film lacks in storytelling finesse it makes up for in sheer atmospheric delight.
That Richardson is great in Columbus should come as no surprise to anyone barely following her career over the past few years. She’s been a standout in tiny indies like The Young Kieslowski, a reliable horror movie actress in Split, and was fantastic as the best friend in the unfortunately underseen The Edge of Seventeen. She has an intense charisma that makes you overlook the fact that she’s a movie-star-beautiful Hollywood actress and immediately buy her as a troubled, architecture-obsessed teen in Columbus, Indiana.
Cho, though, is something of a revelation here. He’s long deserved bigger, better roles, but this is something else entirely. While Richardson gets to go quite big in her performance (a scene in which she dances wildly, by herself, comes to mind) Cho’s character is subtlety personified. We don’t learn a whole lot about his relationship with his father, only that it was strained; we don’t learn all that much about him at all. And yet Jin is as fully-formed a character as Casey, if not more so. Watching Columbus, I was forced to suspend my disbelief that this was the same dude who played Harold in the Harold and Kumar movies. Not to denigrate Harold and Kumar, we’ve just known forever that Cho could be funny on-screen. We did not know, necessarily, that he could do what he does in Columbus. He is, as it turns out, a talented dramatic actor.
I mentioned earlier Columbus having a storytelling problem, and I stand by that. For a character piece with a stripped-down plot, Columbus really takes it up a notch or two partway through its run with a revelation about Casey’s past. It’s one plot-point too many, adding a thread of camp to the otherwise grounded and atmospheric film.
The film’s dialogue, too, is occasionally stilted. One scene in particular comes to mind, when Casey bumps into an old school friend in the library. (The actress playing the old friend was actually quite abominable; it might be her poor acting that made the scene so strikingly bad.)
No matter. Kogonada has such a handle on the film’s visuals, and the score is so powerful and perfect (have I mentioned the score? It’s good.), that these flaws (while important to point out) barely detract from the Columbus viewing experience, which is atmospheric first and foremost. Cho and Richardson are both perfectly cast, delivering top-notch performances. It’s to be celebrated when talented, new or underappreciated artists get together and make a special film like Columbus. There’s something inspiring about it.
Columbus is a film in the tradition of Garden State, one in a long line of movies about a sad dude who has to stop his life and fly to the middle of America somewhere when one of his parents dies or falls ill (didn’t John Krasinski make one of these recently? I think I walked out of it) and also then he meets a girl. But it really is so much more than that, thanks to Kogonada’s deliberate direction and inspired casting decisions.