Columbus is a charming and romantic movie in the vein of Before Sunrise that features stellar performances by Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho.
Columbus is a relatively small city located in southeastern Indiana. And even though it’s located deep in the midwest, it has become a mecca for modern architecture and art. The city itself is a juxtaposition. It’s almost as far from the culture-rich liberal coasts as you can get, yet it still lays claim to some of the biggest advancements of postwar modernism in the United States. But what does that have to do with writer-director Kogonada’s debut film named after the city? Well, everything.
Columbus is about relationships. The relationship between modern architecture and the city. The relationship between a father and son, a mother and daughter. But, at the core, it’s about the relationship between Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), an 18 or 19-year-old young woman who works at the public library, and Jin (John Cho), a Korean-American man who returns to the US after working overseas when his father falls ill. Over a couple of Before Sunrise-esque days, Casey and Jin learn about each other’s pasts, where they are now in their lives, and where they think they should be in the future. And that’s really all there is to it.
Along the way, there are revelations that test this new friendship — or is it more? But what they have in common is a steadfast appreciation for modern architecture, which is what brings them together in the first place. Casey loves it from growing up in the town. Jin simply absorbed the information through his father’s studies and his journal. And though their conversations pretty much only surround architecture, Kogonada infuses them rich subtext that makes the movie a beautiful character study at its core.
John Cho, who is best known for Harold & Kumar and the Star Trek films, proves that he should be taken seriously as an actor with this remarkable performance. Asian men don’t often get the chance to be leading men, especially in romances. But Cho controls the screen with a steely conviction. More impressively, he is able to decide when to allow audiences to understand his thought process, which makes his emotional arc all the more impactful. That’s the mark of a fine actor. However, he gives room for his scene partners to shine — he often plays across Eleanor (Parker Posey) an old friend and his father’s assistant — particularly Richardson, whose performance is simply astounding and one of the best of the year.
What I found so refreshing about Columbus is that it captures a really specific time in life. The time where you’re at a crossroads in life — in this case, post-high school — and have to decide what direction you want to take. However, as with many aspects of life, there is pressure from all sides. Even from people that don’t realize their applying pressure. Casey feels pressure to pursue education from her co-worker Gabriel (Rory Culkin, a scene-stealer), but feels stuck looking after her mother Maria (Michelle Forbes, fantastic here),a recovering drug addict, Richardson portrays that desire to just push back on the pressure and scream so adeptly that it feels like a gut punch once you recognize the feeling. It’s remarkable considering this movie for most of its running time is quiet and meditative — though that doesn’t make it any less impactful.
Columbus is one of those gems that doesn’t seem like anything extraordinary until you’re sitting through the credits trying to absorb what you just watched. In terms of conversation movies, it approaches the level of Before Sunset, which I consider the best of the Before trilogy. Kogonada allows the conversation to flow naturally, but with purpose, and that purpose is for two completely different people, a juxtaposition in their own right, to understand each other and eventually help the other understand which road to take. The beautiful thing is that we don’t know if it’s the right road, but the ending is still filled with hope. Something that we need more of in film.
★★★★½ out of 5
Columbus is available to stream on Hulu or on Digital HD on Amazon!