When I viewed this film, I knew very little about Columbus the movie and nothing of the Indiana town in which it was set. A few critics I trusted called it one of the best films from Sundance 2017 and I’d already determined that Haley Lu Richardson (Edge of Seventeen, Split) was one of the most natural young actors working in film today. Not knowing more than this, within the first few minutes I wondered if I was watching architecture porn. A suspended bridge is captured in perfect symmetry and highlights its bright red nature. The camera positions a conversation to highlight the honeycomb cubed ceiling above. The many grounds on a college campus resembled Robert Irwin fern structures of perfect symmetry.
Indeed Columbus, Indiana has a strange history and the tourism to the small area is not to take in Vice President Mike Pence’s hometown but to view the 60+ buildings within Barholomew County (population 81,000) that are treasures of modern architecture. Seven of these buildings/sites are National Landmarks.
Why does a small Indiana town host buildings that were created by some of the world’s most forward-thinking architects of the mid-20th century? Much like the unnatural splendors of Dubai, it’s diesel oil money, of course. In the 1940s through the 1960s the CEO of Cummins, a diesel fuel engine company that’s based in Columbus, paid many world-leading architects’ fees to build area churches, banks, schools, libraries, theaters and even a fire station. Columbus has been nicknamed “Athens on the Prairie,” but much like modern Athens, the architecture shows a once modern visage in an area that has been left behind in globalization. Because these pieces were not made until the 1960s it feels closer in history than the Parthenon, of course, but once forward looking buildings cannot pull the town through modern advances if the city itself isn’t thriving.
Columbus is the feature film debut of Kogonada, a video essayist whose works frequent Criterion Collection special features and Sight & Sound’s film bible website (choice examples include deep dives into Robert Bresson’s focus on hand gestures, Steven Soderbergh’s non-linear framing and editing devices and the “alternative modernity of Yasujiro Ozu). There is a narrative structure to Columbus—one that’s most comparable to Lost in Translation. But what’s most dreamlike about Columbus is Kogonada’s use of space as he dances about great works of architecture and reveals the façade that architecture can place on a town—a false sense of modernity, a promise of moving forward via your sight of your surroundings, but much of the town is actually retreating backward.
Kogonada uses an American ex-patriot who resides in the ultra-modern Seoul, Jin (John Cho), to represent modernity. He’s emotionally detached, distant and cold. He’s in Columbus because his architect father has gone into a coma while visiting the Indiana campus to give a speech. Jin rejects his father and thus rejects architecture. Casey (Richardson), a young local woman who works at the public library (itself a National Landmark designed by I.M. Pei), is a rare appreciator of the artworks in the town. She’s not interested in the tourism aspect, but in the building’s actual splendor and how they tie into her own personal history of being born and raised there.
Casey spots Jin going into the hospital and exiting with an architecture professor (Parker Posey) and deducts that he’s likely the son of the visiting architect. In a dazzling shot, Casey begins walking and talking with Jin on opposite sides of a fence; enticing him with a cigarette, their conversation ends where the fence has an opening, no longer separating them. They are separate by ideas, however. Jin is the forgotten son who has gone an entire year without speaking to his father and Casey is a devoted daughter who is only staying in Columbus because she believes if she leaves her mother will relapse into meth addiction. Their familial tethers and freedoms are opposite in an old world vs. new world model of success. Jin cut ties with his family and was able to selfishly pursue his own successes on his own terms. Casey has resigned herself to the old way of looking after family first and foremost but that decision keeps her in a town that cannot offer her a better life, despite the splendid architecture that surrounds her.
Their plutonic Lost in Translation-styled friendship works because Richardson is a revelation. She’s curious and wounded but also explosive when she suspects that her mother is lying to her and potentially relapsing, ruining her plans of being a dutiful daughter, the only real plans that she can have in Columbus. Her Casey is truly one of the best performances of 2017, so far. It’s extra special that Richardson is able to create such a full character in a film that works best as a visual essay.
Similar to Sofia Coppola’s film, the older, more selfish man, is there to push her in a better direction and she is present to remind him that despite the modern coldness around him, he is very much alive and capable of being a more decent person when he returns home. But unlike that modern classic, the mood of the film isn’t heightened through sound design and a beloved actor. Both films are narratively sparse, but Columbus is frequently silent in its observances though meticulous in the framing of every shot, making every opened door, every row of cubicles worthy of a placement in a photography book.
Kogonada impressively frames the surroundings; static digital has rarely looked so beautiful. And yes, the architecture assists but there is perfectionist structure in almost every frame. Even Casey’s apartment with her mother is captured in a way that’d make William Eggleston smile, a narrow green hallway full of shadows and cubes, lit by a vintage lamp. This is certainly academic filmmaking (there’s even a discussion of attention vs. interest in which the viewer is given the ceiling, the plants, and the performers as a choose-your-own-adventure choice of where they’re placing their attention). It’s an impressive directorial debut. And although attention and interest sometimes wanes during the runtime, it always looks splendid, and Richardson puts the story on her shoulders and elevates the film into a beguiling, thin air. She lends the beautiful but empty buildings a beating heart.
Columbus played during Brooklyn’s BAMcinemaFest and will be released in select cities, August 4.