Boy meets girl, and four eyes are opened in this beautiful look at sacrifice, self-worth, and the world around us.
Columbus, Indiana is a small town holding big ideas. They’re most visible in the numerous examples of modernist architecture in structures as innocuous as homes, libraries, and covered bridges, but they’re also evident in some of the people. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) is one of those people, but for all that both she and others expect of her — they ask where she’s heading after high school only to be told that she graduated a year ago — she feels compelled to stay in town to care for her ex-meth addict mother (Michelle Forbes). Jin (John Cho) is new to town having just arrived from Seoul to attend to his father, an accomplished architect, who recently fell into a coma, but as the days pass with no change he begins wandering Columbus in search of beauty and distraction from his feelings of guilt.
He finds both in Casey, but it’s less of a romantic connection that builds between them then a human one. They walk through town talking about architecture, family, and the dreams they’ve left behind. His job back home is calling, but in a choice between the stress of work and of an ill father he chooses the latter. It’s a choice Casey recognizes, but as their time together grows it becomes clear that it’s not the right choice for them both.
Writer/director Kogonada makes his feature debut with Columbus, and it’s as delicately beautiful a film as you’ve seen.
It’s a film as filled with silence as it is talking, and even as the unlikely pairing of Cho and Richardson share conversations about seemingly impersonal things — the town’s history and architectural relevance — the meaning grows in the gaps between. They shift easily into talking about their families and how their thoughts of the future are far removed from the present.
Both actors have shown their talents previously — Richardson is a scene-stealer in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen — but they’re revelations here. Cho’s dramatic maturity is on full display as a leading man, romantic or otherwise, and as a man torn between practical needs like work and companionship and more ethereal ones like purpose and identity. Richardson’s performance meanwhile sneaks up on you as she goes from engaging young woman to a quietly devastating presence for whom we alternately worry and cheer.
The film is at its best when these two share the screen, but their characters are informed just as much by their time apart. Jin finds comfort of sorts in the arms and bed of his father’s assistant (Parker Posey) — he crushed on her as a child — but their coupling is built more on shared grief than shared affection. We watch Casey with her mom and see a woman whose fear of losing her daughter may end up costing her daughter dearly. One of Casey’s friends, the only one we see her really interact with, is a co-worker at the local library and someone who she views as something of an ideal — again, not romantically, but in achievement. Gabriel (Rory Culkin) escaped this town and scaled the walls of academia, but he’s returned with a bigger vocabulary and far less ambition. Instead his goal seems limited only to wooing Casey, but while his monologue/diatribe on the problem with the American attention span impresses she’s far from an easy mark.
Gabriel’s rant feels as much of a critical jibe towards audiences as it does an acknowledgement by Kogonada that yes, he knows some viewers will check out from his methodically-paced film, but it’s neither mean-spirited nor petty. It’s merely an observation, one of many the characters in Columbus make about the world that they — and we — live in. It’s a film about opening your eyes to the people, objects, and opportunities around you, and then acting accordingly.
Casey begins the film already aware of much of these things, but what she’s missing is an appreciation of her own value. The question she faces isn’t just whether or not she should leave home. It’s whether or not she can.