Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/13/17 13:57:13

"Modernist but surprisingly not brutalist."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

"Columbus" is the fourth or fifth movie I can recall off the top of my head that draws its title from its setting in a way that anticipates the audience reading about it in a film-festival program. You're not really expected to go in without having read something along the lines of "... in Columbus, Indiana, a city noteworthy for its modernist architecture…" at some point, and I sometimes wonder how they play without that preliminary step. Fortunately, it's not a huge deal in this case, although there may still be a moment or two when unprepared audiences wonder just why these impressive performances often return to that particular subject.

The town's architecture is a point of interest for Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a 19-year-old who works in the library and spends most of her off-hours hanging out with her mom (Michelle Forbes). She was looking forward to a talk by a famous Korean scholar, but he had a stroke, and he's currently stable but not healthy enough to move, so his former student Eleanor (Parker Posey) calls his son Jin (John Cho), who flies in from Seoul. Though Korean tradition maintains that it is important family be by a person's side when he or she dies, Jin is too restless for that, and meets Casey while pacing near where she takes her smoke breaks. Though his rocky relationship with his father has led him to avoid the man's passion, he doesn't exactly have a lot of other people to talk to when Eleanor returns home to Chicago and his father continues to lay in limbo.

John Cho is the big, recognizable name in the cast, and expect the film to be used as an argument for why he should be a bigger star; the film is frequently built around shots where the characters are subordinated to the buildings around them but Cho strides through them with a hostility that catches one's attention but doesn't actually put a viewer off. He's a compelling-enough presence that he can push Jin's resentment hard without obvious justification beyond his own words, only letting the man's friendlier side to emerge later. It's worth noting that he does this without any direct interaction with Jin's father, whom writer/director Kogonada quickly establishes as frustrating in a wordless, initial sequence where he's mostly either just off-screen or backgrounded while the audience sees the frantic concern of Parker Posey's Eleanor, a contrast that allows the scenes where they have to sometimes-contentiously meet in the middle to ddraw the audience in.

While she's not quite so well-known, Haley Lu Richardson is front and center early, and she grabs the audience in the opposite way, as the film highlights Casey as bright in multiple meanings of the word, displaying a genuine curiosity as well as a sunny-enough personality that makes it easy to see people gravitating toward her. Kogonada seldom paints Casey as passive, giving her plenty of moments to take charge, and Richardson projects that she's instinctual but not reckless. She shows the character's cheery nature as not fake but often pulled out of place to cover something else, and makes the moments where she's defensive or frustrated seem less like a complete switch from her usual actions. She and Michelle Forbes do a fine job of making sure each mother/daughter scene balances affection and dependence in just the way that moment needs.

It's impressive how Richardson and Cho play their characters' relationships with their parents as reflections rather than truly the same underneath; Kogonada has them pass each other in opposite directions without finding a happy medium. It's an often slight, messy story with plenty of loose ends and missing steps, and when the director highlights this it can be a bit frustrating; there's a scene where Jin challenges Casey to explain why she loves a building without just regurgitating tour-guide material, and when she does, it's witnessed from the other side of a window without sound. It's a thoughful choice - Casey explaining that may have just given the audience the same sort of easily-repeated hook into her character that the film was just disdaining - but it's an idea nested a couple layers deep that in the moment seems to obscure more than it reveals.

That, in some ways, goes against Kogonada's use of the architecture for which the setting is famous (at least among what Jin calls "architecture nerds"), in that while buildings are often seen as containers in film, many of the ones that catch the filmmaker's and Casey's attention are transparent, or bridges; interiors of the town's famous or fancy places are open, especially compared to the house where Casey and Maria live, where shots frequently seem like looking down a tunnel. For Casey, architecture is a means of discovery and potential movement, enlightenment rather than things being sequestered away. It's telling that the blandest, most brutalistic building she encounters - the factory where her mother works - not only manufactures boxes but is where she most pointedly does not know something that worries her. There's clear love to how he and cinematographer Elisha Christian shoot the town, although like architecture, it's also very functional, seldom just about noting the beauty and symmetry.

There's still enough gazing at buildings and having characters talk rather than do things, even above and beyond the need to play into how both Casey and Jin are in positions where they can't really do much, that "Columbus" can feel a bit austere. The moments when it does are rarer than you might think, though, and it gives the cast some room to do some very impressive work.

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