There was never any question that when lauded video essayist Kogonada finally turned his attention to a full-length feature, the finished product would be visually stunning and impeccably framed. The real surprise — and a satisfying one at that — is how the newly-minted filmmaker has used his debut effort “Columbus” to layer visual flair with deep emotional nuance, delivered care of two of the year’s best performances.
Set in the small city of Columbus, Indiana, an American mini-metropolis that’s home to a number of Modernist structures from such giants of architecture as Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei, and Richard Meier, “Columbus” is a feast for the eyes, but its more lasting impression is on the heart.
Ostensibly a romantic drama in the vein of Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy and Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation,” “Columbus” joins together a pair of seemingly different people — both with troubles to spare — and delights in them, well, delighting in each other. Jin (John Cho) arrives in Columbus after his father, a respected professor, falls into a coma on the eve of an important talk. A stranger to both his father (the two men haven’t spoken in over a year) and the country he used to call home (though American-raised, Jin’s life and work is in Korea), Jin feels understandably isolated in the strange city, but that changes when he runs into Columbus native Casey (Haley Lu Richardson).
An architecture freak who is struggling to make her own way (and get out from under her loving, but troubled mother), Casey spends her days working at the local library, admiring the architecture of her adopted hometown, and steadfastly pushing down thoughts that there must be something more out there. If anything, she’s convinced herself that she’s fine where she is, but her curiosity and intelligence hint at bigger dreams for the recent high school grad. “I like Columbus,” Casey tells a nosy friend, who seems shocked that anyone would. You almost believe her. Relative newcomer Richardson, who was so appealing in “The Edge of Seventeen” in what could have been a throwaway role (and one outshone by star Hailee Steinfeld), is simply stunning here.
Every shot in “Columbus” is an impressive visual achievement, but the ones that place Richardson and Cho at the center are superior from the start. As Jin takes a phone call outside his sprawling hotel (seemingly the only building in Columbus not touched by Modernist design), the ever-curious Casey eavesdrops on his conversation, delighted to eventually discover a kindred spirit who is equally at ease calmly puffing on a cigarette and discussing the intricacies of architecture. Initially, they’re separated by a tall wrought iron fence, but as they walk slowly together, a break appears — suddenly, they’re standing next to each other. The temperature of the scene changes on a dime, and from that moment, they’re never pushed apart again.
The pair fall into an easy conversation that continues throughout the rest of the feature, and one that picks up and falls off without ever real ending, nor beginning. Kogonada doesn’t just have a knack for creating visual art, but an ear for conversations, the kind that beat along with ease. His characters talk like real people.
Richardson and Cho are the perfect people for such roles. The pair have prodigious chemistry, but the real pleasure of “Columbus” is watching that bond deepen, and the comfort that Casey and Jin ultimately find in each other. Kogonada doesn’t only seem compelled by how things and people take up space — though his skill at framing a shot, every shot is the first attraction of the film — but why, especially when those things and people are forced to interact with each other. As Casey and Jin embark on a haphazard, days-long architecture tour of the town, discussions about structure and space abound, but it’s the construction of their relationship that stands tall.
While “Columbus” is principally focused on Jin and Casey’s growing relationship, their story would be incomplete without exploring the impact others have on them. Casey and Jin’s relationship is mirrored elsewhere, as Jin bonds in fits and starts with his father’s assistant (Parker Posey in an unexpected role, far more down to earth than audiences are used to seeing her, and charmingly so) and Casey keeps up a vaguely flirty friendship with a co-worker, played by Rory Culkin. Casey’s relationship with her troubled mother, played by Michelle Forbes, informs much of her experience, and as she reveals details of their life together to Jin, her troubles come into sharper relief.
Columbus as a setting is a fine enough way station for both Casey and Jin — one of whom knows it intimately, the other who must discover it as the narrative winds on — but the real turning point is the discovery of each other, and what that means when it comes time to construct a brand new life.
“Columbus” opens in select theaters on Friday, August 4.