Columbus, the first feature film of the talented film essayist Kogonada, calls enough attention to its subjects to captivate viewers but keeps enough distance to inspire pursuit, which is usually a formula for great cinema.
Haley Lu Richardson’s Casey, a recent high school graduate, works at the library in Columbus, a small Indiana town that’s a mecca for modernist architecture. She lives with and cares for her mom, a recovering addict now working in a factory. She says she loves Columbus, but you get the sense she’s also stuck in it.
Then there’s John Cho’s Jin, a literary translator who comes to town when his architecture professor father suddenly falls ill before a lecture. The two meet by chance as Jin holds a grudging vigil for his comatose father, whom he openly resents despite, or because of, his academic renown.
Sensing a spiritual match in the other, they wander Columbus looking at the modernist buildings, looking and wondering at each other, and looking inward, perhaps in search for what Jin’s father referred to as “modernism with a soul.” They struggle with their pasts and parents as they struggle toward a companionship that takes as many forms in their few days together as the buildings they gaze at.
They begin as strangers, become debate partners, and end up confidantes as they forge a temporary intimacy borne out of commonalities, though sometimes tensed by their differences.
The burdens they wrestle with—Jin with resentment toward his ailing father and Casey with her traumatic past—loom almost as large as the buildings, captured with determined stillness by Kogonada both as background scenery and as havens for Casey and Jin’s ambling.
The power Kogonada gives to moments of silent observation is the film’s strength (even if it made it seem a tad too long). In that way Columbus felt like a Midwestern version of This Is Martin Bonner, with characters yearning for connection while trying to soldier through minor existential crises in an alienating modern milieu.
I’d only seen Cho as Sulu in the new Star Trek franchise and Richardson as Hailee Steinfeld’s friend in The Edge of Seventeen, so they both kinda blew me away here. Bolstered by Parker Posey and Rory Culkin in supporting roles—Culkin’s conversations with Casey in the Columbus library about literature and librarianship made me smile—the two leads shoulder the film equally and prove as complex as their surroundings.
Grateful as always to Chicago’s Music Box Theatre for bringing in movies like this.