Columbus Review: Small Town Vibes

Normally a safe haven from cynically made Hollywood extravaganzas, 2017’s offerings of independent cinema have been somewhat lacking. There appears to be a yearning for human stories to be told, which can naturally be a genuine thrill, but these stories are having trouble finding a voice that stands out from the rest. The result are films like Columbus, which are well acted, well scripted, and well shot, but devoid of originality.

Sparked by the hospitalization of a respected professor in Columbus, Indiana, the film tells the story of two people suppressing their own emotions in favor of static complacency. The professor’s son, Jin (John Cho, showing both restraint and range), flies in from Korea to oversee the medical hardships of a man who put him second to his own career. Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, an up-and-comer to watch), meanwhile, is a young woman a year out of high school who’s taken an interest in the professor’s craft: architecture. Despite the connection, the two end up meeting by chance, and a relationship ensues that the film smartly doesn’t quite choose to define, though it’s far more emotional than physical. Jin is a fair amount older than Casey, but she’s also above the age of consent. The most original aspect of the film may be its mature treatment of said relationship, showing two people who share a connection at a mutually difficult moment in their lives. No one gets demonized, as it’s not really what the film is even about.

Instead, Columbus aims to take its characters to a place where they are more in touch with themselves and their desires in life. Shooting in a setting as mundane as one of Indiana’s most thrilling cultural centers (Casey is pretty much the only person her age sticking around) helps explore the film’s central theme of finding more for yourself. And director Kogonada, for his debut, has a unique vision of the town, using the camera to milk it for every possible hint of beauty it’s got.

But while the film is undeniably satisfying, it’s also disappointingly plain. The story itself isn’t all that risky or unique, and neither is its resolution, though it does offer some complications that keep the whole package multidimensional. Simplicity for simplicity sake may be part of the point of Columbus, but it doesn’t explore it in as inviting a way as say Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson from last year. Columbus is perfectly digestible, and goes down remarkably smooth, but you’re likely to forget you even had it. Grade: B

By Matt Dougherty

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