Overview: A young woman who cares for her mother befriends a man who visits the town of Columbus, Indiana when his father falls ill; Depth of Field; 2017; 100 minutes.
Dream Baby Dream: Early in Columbus, the debut film from writer/director Kogonada, we hear a girl rehearsing to herself as she stands at the foot of a beautiful building. The hushed voice recites the facts and figures you’d hear from a tour guide. Indeed, Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) would make a great guide to the modernist architecture sprinkled around the town in Indiana that the film is named for. She’s smart, friendly, an expert. Will a young, passionate kid like Casey be fulfilled by clearing the relatively low bar of local guide? Deep down, Casey probably wants to pursue something greater, but she’s hesitant because she cares for her mother, who we learn has battled addiction and been abandoned by Casey’s father and other men. Casey believes that her mom needs her. Her dreams can wait.
Elsewhere, Jin (John Cho), visits Columbus to aid for his ailing father, a well-known architecture scholar who was in town for a talk (Casey, a big fan, was planning to attend). Jin is an accomplished-but-bored literary translator. He doesn’t care much for the topic that his father so loved. When Casey meets Jin, she’s a bit surprised to learn that she knows more about Jin’s father’s passions, and perhaps Jin’s father himself, than Jin does. He may not be interested in architecture, but he’s interested in and perhaps a bit fascinated by Casey. Is it platonic? Their age difference suggests it has to be. It’s not a relationship that fits into some neat categorization, and I think that’s a good thing.
Inside and Outside: Columbus follows these new friends as they learn about one another and navigate fraught parental situations amidst the beautiful architecture of the town. The buildings, sculptures, and structures, beautifully photographed by Elisha Christian, are key. They serve as a foundation for Casey and Jin’s relationship, whether they’re shown on film as settings, backgrounds or transitions, or whether they’re part of the subject matter the characters converse about. Even though Jin doesn’t hold the amount of interest Casey does, this town and its architecture is what binds them together.
The film, in ways, is akin to Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy; the story and characters develop through long and interesting conversations between the heroes. It’s a good script, but it’s the film’s weakest aspect, namely for the few moments of conversation that come off a bit too clearly as thematic. It’s to the great credit of Richardson and Cho that we become invested in Casey and Jin’s relationship and their individual lives. Richardson, in particular, gives the film its emotional pull. Casey works at a library, spending her workdays in flirtatious verbal pillow fights with co-worker Gabriel (Rory Culkin). Richardson excels at giving us the rollercoaster of emotions that Casey goes through during the conversations. Like pursing a career in architecture, perhaps a relationship with Gabriel is what Casey really wants? In the span of a few seconds, we can see Casey envision these different futures before the pull of reality—bounded by her mother’s struggles—brings her back. Richardson is a brilliant facial actor. She was very good as both the best friend in The Edge of Seventeen and as a captive teen in Split, but this is the performance that could be the one that people in the future reference as a break out, her Winter’s Bone.
While the brilliant exteriors of many modernist masterpieces feature prominently, the film doesn’t lose much when we’re indoors or at close quarters. It’s just as fascinated by interiors. The long hallway in the hospital that leads to Jin’s father’s room seems never ending; the room at a bed and breakfast room where Jin stays is home to one of the film’s most dynamically-shot scenes; the home where Casey lives with her mother feels cramped yet familiar. Kogonada utilizes lots of symmetry, as though these two characters are parts of a whole, together forming some sort of completed structure, or at least the foundation of one.
A Deeper Understanding: This is Kogonada’s debut feature. He made a name for himself as a video essayist, providing deep visual analysis of movies. He is clearly interested in how we see and understand things and how we can learn more about each other and ourselves if we just take the time to try. Watching Columbus made me want to go there. I wouldn’t mind bumping into either of the heroes and learning more about them while I was exploring, too.
Overall: Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho give great performances to ground Kogonada’s beautiful, meditative debut.