At this point educated readers have already read and formed opinions about the 2018 Oscar nominations, but I want to talk about a Sundance darling that was regrettably snubbed by the Academy voters. I want to talk about Columbus.
A lot of indie films revolve around the idea of art as something physical but also as an idea –– as a social construct that is bigger than its own purpose. And Columbus is no exception. The art that is beautifully explored in this film? Architecture, specifically the architecture oddity of modernism that exists in the small town of Columbus, Indiana or the “Midwest Mecca of Architecture.”
The setting of the film is so much more than a place on a map. The town and the buildings within are as important to the story as our main characters. You can see through Kogonada’s direction and Elisha Christian’s cinematography that life doesn’t simply exist outside these structural icons. They are a part of those lives, they almost seem like they are watching as closely as you, as you focus in and out on the soft green landscape growing around the sharp corners and angular lines of the modern architecture, at odds with the slow pace of life in the small town.
The plot of Columbus weaves its way around these buildings and we learn more about our main characters while we explore the town’s architecture. The emotional pull of the film begins with one moment, an elderly man collapses outside a building in Columbus. Jin (the under utilized John Cho who is definitely leading man material) is the Korean-born son of the elderly man. He travels to the town at the behest of his father’s protégée after his health crisis. Though it is never fully explained Jin has a strained relationship with his father who was completely dedicated to his passion for architecture. That is in fact why he is in a town that is seemingly insignificant in every other sense.
Columbus has a plot that begins at two parts and intertwines into one. The other main character is Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) a born and bred Columbus native that works at the local library with fellow page (Rory Culkin) despite her peers starting their sophomore year of college. Her mother’s past meth addiction which is “really big” there leads to her stunted life in a town she characterizes as “Meth and Modernism.” The two meet as Jin bums a cigarette from Casey. Casey sheepishly asks if he is the son of the architect who collapsed, a legend in his field he was in town to speak. She would have gone to his talk because, as we discover Casey also has a passion to architecture. The age difference between Jin and Casey discourages an all-out romance, which would not have set well with a 2017 Sundance audience or a 2018 streaming audience anyway. This decision to avoid a “taboo” romance between a lonely younger woman and an older, mysterious man was a smart one. Jin and Casey have an immediate chemistry and intimacy that stems from a desire to escape their life circumstances through each other.
Without the chemistry between Cho and Richardson this film would quickly wander aimlessly. You would lose interest in the story and just be staring at the beautifully shot scenes at the buildings around them. But that doesn’t happen. Instead you are sucked into this quietly intense exchange unfolding between two people. The importance of looking and listening cannot be overstated in Columbus. The film is sad and longing, as Kogonada lingers on the intricate stonework or glass windows of a building you feel that sadness build, slowly. Nothing is hurried in this town, the people seem as steady as the monolithic structures around them. This film was simple and dealt with issues in a deft and realistic nature, but for me it was surprisingly emotional. Columbus sinks you into the melancholy of life – the soft longing that exists in everyone for something we might not even realize. Columbus –– like it’s architecture –– forces you to look deeper, look longer and see more.