“Columbus” is a movie that exists in the quiet spaces between life: Collecting yourself after dropping someone off at work, going through your parent’s stuff, waiting for someone to come home. It’s in these times and stories that events feel unmoored from time, and reality is every so slightly altered. In moments like these you can sometimes find folks who can jolt you out of that stupor. Even if, sometimes, it’s just a quiet nudge in the right direction.
Jin and Casey are both in moments like this. Separately, at first; he (John Cho) is a Korean-born man who finds himself stuck in Columbus, Indiana after his architect father falls into a coma there. She (Haley Lu Richardson) is a fresh college graduate who elected to stay in Columbus to be with her mother, a recovering addict, instead of going to graduate school.
“Columbus” works because it recognizes that neither of these people are in full-blown arrested development, per se. They’ve just found themselves in situations they feel a bit stuck in. And then suddenly they find themselves in a new one: Wandering around Columbus, exploring the modern architecture, and connecting with someone they didn’t know the week before.
It’s in moments like these that monumental truths tumble out of your mouth like syrup out of a bottle: heavier than you’d expect, and perhaps a bit faster than you’d prepared to stop. It’s a world where they can walk and talk, share and care, without running into another soul. This version of Columbus would feel entirely outside reality, if it didn’t feel so intimately depressed by it.
The film is not so concerned with crowding its characters and forcing growth. It gives shots, moments, and (perhaps most importantly given the nature of their discussions) places room to breathe, and allows its characters to uncurl themselves into new places.
Richardson’s acting only gets stronger with each new layer pulled back on her character. Cho’s Jin is typically bit more overwritten, especially when the spotlight is on him. But as an actor, Cho is such a compelling every man and manages to elevate his more obvious material to a higher level. And when he keys into Jin pushing back on Casey, imbuing him with a firm sense her in the world even if he has lost himself in it, it’s a masterclass.
Their conversations are punctuated and elevated by their surroundings—of course, in a movie that delves into the power of architecture scenes would need to communicate a sort of reverence to that. The cinematography of the movie manages to capture how immense these hushed moments can feel.
It’s not in your face bombastic, but has moments of simple brilliance. When Casey brings Jin to her third favorite architect building — a “place of healing” — writer and director Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian keep it looming in the background, filling up the screen behind them and instead focusing the details of their conversation; a turn of the head or a furrowing of a brow.
Perhaps one of its greatest successes as a film is a clear communication that this is a world that unfolds in a gray space, of both time and narrative logic. There are no simple answers, and the ending (though perhaps a bit quick and tidy) carries a solemn understanding that these actions were a long time coming.
In this quiet town and movie there’s no music swelling to drive your feelings. It knows those are simmering right beneath the surface. “Columbus” understands that this is a world for those lazy, hazy, and calmly crazy summer days where it feels like nothing changes until suddenly they do.
“Columbus” opens Aug. 11 at SIFF Cinema Uptown (511 Queen Anne Ave. N.). For more information on the film, visit www.nonethelessproductions.com/columbus.