A Review Of Columbus

The film starring John Cho, Parker Posey, and Haley Lu Richardson debuts in Indiana on September 1.

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“You grow up around something and it feels like nothing,” says Jin (John Cho), the star of Columbus. That sums up the conflict played out in the new feature film shot in Southern Indiana’s Modernist mecca. On the steps of architect Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church, the character expresses his indifference to architecture despite growing up with a renowned architecture professor, his father, who has fallen ill while visiting the town for a speaking engagement. But much like the buildings, the presence of the architects who constructed this hidden gem of a city loom over every scene, whether you’re into them or not.

I can relate. I wasn’t likely to give Columbus a bad review. My own father and grandfather were Modernist architects, and because of their influence, I can’t walk past a CVS without analyzing it. So to see works of their peers on the big screen would be reason enough for me to like the film.

Luckily, I didn’t have to grade on a curve. Columbus is excellent from the opening shot of the Miller House (with its colorful Alexander Girard interior, commanding Eero Saarinen sight lines, and austere Dan Kiley green spaces) all the way to the final credits. Throughout, we are given a cinematic tour of Columbus’s significance, replete with lingering wide shot after wide shot of images until now reserved for expensive Taschen coffee-table books.

Inspired during a family trip to Columbus, the one-named director and writer Kogonada explores the duality of the place as a small town and a world-famous design destination. Haley Lu Richardson plays Casey, a local girl trapped there by the needs of her drug-addict mother. An architecture fangirl in a town of mostly indifferent blue-collar workers, Casey befriends Jin, who leads her on a journey from “townie” to someone with aesthetic aspirations of her own.

In most films featuring famous architectural landmarks, the buildings act only as part of the set (think of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Ennis house in Blade Runner or Richard Neutra’s sleek Lovell Health House in L.A. Confidential). But in Columbus, works by Myron Goldsmith, Eliel Saarinen, and I.M Pei are part of the story, providing repose, inspiration, conversation, and conflict.

When the main characters discuss the healing qualities architect James Polshek intended for his Quinco Regional Mental Health Center, or ruminate under the soothing glow of Deborah Berke’s First Financial Bank at night, it doesn’t feel forced or contrived. It’s essential to the narrative. The town itself is a character—serving as a beacon of hope, an artistic anomaly, and yes, a dead end.

Parker Posey is supremely cast as Eleanor, Jin’s father’s wife. And Rory Culkin (Macaulay’s brother), who plays Gabriel, delivers a memorable monologue at I.M Pei’s Cleo Rogers Memorial Library.

Winston Churchill once said, “We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us.” Columbus (the movie) puts that notion to the test. Whether or not it’s true, the buildings of Columbus (the town) already have shaped a gorgeous and compelling film.

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