SPOILER ALERT: As usual, I will discuss characters and plot points in the film, so I do encourage you to watch it before reading this review. Then, come back and join the discussion!
I am a Hoosier, born and raised, so I'll acknowledge right off the bat that I may have come to my first viewing of Columbus with a slightly different viewpoint than those who aren't from Indiana. I felt an inner cheer the first time that the Robert Stewart Bridge made an appearance. I've been to Columbus a few times, but this film felt like a love letter to all of Indiana for me. But, again, I acknowledge the bias I may have there.
First and foremost, this film is shot with an undeniable eye for beauty and balance (though sometimes asymmetrical, as alluded to by an early line of dialogue) by director of photography Elisha Christian and the film's director Kogonada. Columbus is a town known for its architecture, and various local buildings play key roles in the films. Architecture has specific designs that utilize hard lines and precise measurements. Our actual lives tend to be a bit more messy, and that is the fascinating juxtaposition on display throughout the film.
The movie's main character, Casey, is played with aplomb by Haley Lu Richardson. She is a recent high school graduate who has decided to put off going to college to stay here in her hometown. For reasons we find out later in the film, she feels a need to be here with her mother, Maria (Michelle Forbes).
Early in the film, there is a conversation between Casey and a high-school friend of hers named Sarah (Lindsey Shope) who has recently come back to Columbus after traveling abroad. In her friend's mind, it's a given that Casey should want to leave and go somewhere else. I had to chuckle when she mentioned Chicago as almost of an afterthought, but certainly a better landing place than here. It sounded like many conversations I had heard growing up in Indiana. My family experience doesn't look quite like Casey's, but I can relate with her feeling that home is better than people give it credit for.
But I've already gotten ahead of myself. The film begins with an elderly man being escorted around one of the architectural marvels we will later come to recognize. We gather that he is some kind of expert or sought-after individual. He collapses outside the building, and he will be in the hospital for the remainder of the film. He is a famous investor in architecture, and he had come to Columbus to give a talk about the local scene. At this point, we meet his estranged son, Jin (John Cho), who travels from Seoul to come see his father. We gather that the two have never been very close. Throughout the film, Jin has a coldness towards his father. It's hard for him to understand why he should expend so much energy on a man who never did the same for him.
Casey and Jin meet in what feels like a somewhat contrived plot point. Casey sees Jin walking into the hospital, then the two happen to run into each other later. Jin is certainly older than Casey, but they see each other as peers. The entire rest of the movie hinges on their relationship and how that effects each one's relationship to their respective parents, so I understand the need to put them together. For me, it didn't feel 100% realistic, but the acting, direction and cinematography helped coax me along the rest of the way. No matter how they met, I enjoyed their interactions and I was invested in where this relationship was going. That's a testament to the work of Kogonada and crew in crafting their story.
Casey is a lover of the city's architecture (she has a list of her favorite buildings) and was planning on attending Jin's father's talk. Jin isn't the lover of architecture that his father is, but some of the knowledge has been passed down. Casey takes Jin with her on a tour of the city's beautiful buildings, and they begin some kind of a relationship. Jin is initially surprised that everyone in Columbus is not as steeped in the city's architectural history as Casey. She remarks that familiar things often don't seem as interesting to people.
The entire film is a fascinating contemplation on the spaces and places we inhabit and call home. Both Richardson and Cho give fine lead performances, but it was Richardson's turn that stuck out to me. There are many times where we get shots of her sitting and thinking or walking through a silent hallway at night. She does so much with facial expressions and quiet moments. (Side note: while promoting the film, Richardson was interviewed by a high school friend of mine named Summer Daily who is the special sections editor at Indianapolis Monthly. It's a fun interview, and while I am partial to Indiana sunsets, I will say that Arizona sunsets are spectacular as well.)
Relationships get messy, and that is true here. Whether it is the relationship between Casey and her mother, Jin and his father or Casey and Jin, we quickly realized that life isn't always as clean as the lines on a building. Things are obfuscated even further when we realize that there is some kind of history between Jin and his father's student/assistant Eleanor (Parker Posey). It all builds to Casey's decision on whether or not she can bring herself to leave home and the responsibilities that she feels she has to her mother.
You should see Columbus for its beautiful visuals alone. There are so many fantastic wide shots in the film that showcase the spaces the crew had to play with. Add in the superb acting performances, and I think it is one of the finest films of the year. Some of the writing was a little on the nose (like a line from Jin about wanting to hear how the buildings make Casey "feel"), but those moments were few and far between. Even if this movie didn't take place in my home state, I'd still be fascinated by what it has to say about the idea of home in general.
Note on content: This film does contain brief rear male nudity, and there is language throughout - including drug references - though the language is not profuse, in my opinion. It has a "Not Rated" moniker, but I would consider this to be on the lighter side of modern R-rated films. There is no violence to speak of, and while there are intense scenes with regards to family dynamics, I think this is a film that most adults will find entertaining and thought-provoking. However, it may not be appropriate for younger viewers.