The Best Directorial Debut of the Year: Columbus Review

There are films that move you because of how sad they are.

Then there are films that move you because for a fleeting moment, you felt part of a world that wasn’t your own.

The images on screen became a new reality and the characters living in that reality became people you truly cared about.

That is the power of Kogonada’s feature length debut, Columbus.

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Columbus is the first film of the year to truly capture what “real” life feels like.

I was transported to a place I’ve never been before yet by the end, I felt I had lived and breathed Columbus, Indiana.

Each destination our characters go is filmed with an artful eye; never making us feel like we’re lost.


Kogonada and cinematographer Elisha Christian, have crafted a coming of age film that doesn’t wallow in quick cuts or an endless jukebox of tunes to make us more engaged.

It takes it’s time. Never rushing, and images soon become burned into your brain, because the filmmakers frame each shot with wondrous precision.

As the film progresses, it starts to feel like you are watching a portal to another world that’s begging you to step inside.

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One of the things that sets this film apart from other coming of age tales is that it takes advantage of it’s location, the surprisingly architecturally renowned Columbus, Indiana.

Architecture is crucial to our two main characters, Casey and Jin; played marvelously by Haley Lu Richardson and John Cho.

Casey looks at it as a hobby that turns her hometown into something more mythical and meaningful.  The other looks at it with disdain, because it’s been part of his whole life even though he never had any interest in it.

While the two differing viewpoints does indeed cause tension, there is a mutual respect and fascination each character finds in the other.

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Haley Lu Richardson gives the best performance I’ve seen this year.

From the moment she appears, you are no longer witnessing the long haired peppy actress that was mostly regulated to the background.

She steps into the spotlight here and never looks back.

At first it seems as if Richardson is playing very subtle here, but that’s far from the truth.

Her lines never feel rehearsed or forced, her posture almost never poised, and her hair realistically unkempt at times.

It’s transformative.

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People have wrongly written her off as just a pretty face, especially after her underwritten turn in Split, but I always knew she was capable of something we hadn’t seen before.

I just didn’t expect her to blow me away and in the process, surpass Robert Pattinson’s bravura, and also transformative turn, in Good Time.

As the lights went up, I felt this movie would change the course of her career, and I’m willing to bet she will be Oscar nominated in the years to come.

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Although Haley Lu Richardson steals the film, John Cho’s stern yet soulful performance is his best work to date.

I’ve grown up watching Cho in such films as American Pie, Star Trek, and the criminally under-talked about Sundance hit, Better Luck Tomorrow. So, it was a pleasure to see him play a character with this much depth.

There’s a quiet rage in him throughout the film as well, especially when it gets into his history with his father, and Cho earns our trust and sympathy by never explicitly telling us how to feel.

For instance, there’s a moment on screen where he tells Casey about his feelings about life and death.  It could’ve been a scene where Cho over acts everything he says and even threw in a subtle tear for supreme “dramatic” effect.

But no, he says each word almost without flinching but subtle facial tics reveal the true nature of his soul.


It’s been said that this film was directed and acted with the intent of capturing what felt real and what would make the film come to life.

This mission is accomplished with flying colors.

Kogonada directs the film with an assured confidence that is rarely seen in first time directors.  Usually, first films are very unsubtle or feature far too many far fetched plot points (such as Joel Edgerton’s messy but well executed directorial debut, The Gift).

With a steady camera that always find the beauty hidden within the seemingly mundane, Columbus is a soon to be classic, one that I can’t wait to show to my friends.

★★★★ ½ Columbus is a triumphant directorial debut and a beautiful study of two people finding solace and meaning in each other.

images via DoP and Sundance Institute 




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