This is part of an occasional series of reviews focusing on streaming releases linked to places of my past and present.
“Columbus,” Four out of five stars. Streaming on iTunes, Amazon and Google Play.
In 1998 during my freshman year at college, I met a person would turn out to be one of my best friends. She was from Charlottesville, Virginia, so I immediately thought that her favorite band would be Dave Matthews Band. It wasn’t, but it was her roommate’s all-time favorite. Despite going to a school that was more than 200 miles away, she could not escape the feel-good jams and sounds.
Years later, we both became studio art majors and art history minors (she had a second minor in French whereas mine was in mathematics). I later found out that she spent part of her childhood in Indiana. My history realm was mostly in contemporary art and pop culture.
During my modern architecture class, I studied American communities that were like sandboxes for architectural masters like Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson and Michael Graves. I was intrigued by the city of Columbus, Indiana, where your neighborhood bank was designed by someone famous and that nearly every building had a place in modern and post-modern architecture.
Then I learned that my friend moved to Columbus when she was little and later returned to Charlottesville. She still had family who lived in Indiana. Color me amazed because I wanted a reason to visit this art-important town and wondered what it was like to live in a city like that. My friend just said, “Yeah, we had weird-looking banks.”
“Columbus” may be the closest I get to actually being there and getting a glimpse as to what it is like to live in this architectural mecca. Jin (John Cho) is the son of an architect who was about to give a lecture in Columbus before he became seriously ill. The son flies from Seoul, South Korea, to the Indiana city where his father is hospitalized. Jin meets Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a recent high school graduate who works at a library and lives with her mother. The two strike up an unlikely friendship – Jin is disinterested in architecture while Casey knows every detail about every designed building.
What keeps Casey in Columbus is her need to take care of her meth-addicted mother Maria (Michelle Forbes). She puts her dreams on hold, drives a beat-up sedan and watches as her classmates leave Columbus for different futures. What writer/director Kogonada does with “Columbus” is take what architecture buffs are familiar with – Columbus’ striking buildings, bridges and landscape – and asks them to think about them deeply. Casey can recite all the facts of a bank building like a tour guide, but Jin challenges her to feel them. It opens up a window into her world, how she attaches herself and her life into each building without even knowing it. For Jin, who tries to escape from his father’s shadow and the responsibilities of being a son, he wants more for Casey than just being attached to her hometown and to her mother.
Kogonada shows how it’s easy to get lost in the beauty that surrounds us that can also mask what is within us. Casey does not have a great life; she lives in a sterile, domestic neighborhood untouched by art giants. The audience feels the pain Jin and Casey have been hiding – the fear of losing a parent – and by the end, they can free it and breathe again.
What spoils this sweet portrait is the presence of Eleanor (Parker Posey), Jin’s father’s assistant. She brings her own uptight baggage to the mix. If she weren’t the queen of independent film, Posey and her character would be misplaced in this one, but she is an energetic being in the middle of a melancholic setting. Cho finally has a meaty leading role as the conflicted Jin, and Richardson brings forth the mixed feelings of staying home and wanting to grow. Perhaps the biggest star of them all are the living buildings, which Kogonada gives heart in places some would think to be cold and brutal, especially when designed by the architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill.