Sometimes dubbed the “Athens of the Prairie,” the small city of Columbus, Indiana can be found less than an hour south of Indianapolis. It has two related claims to fame: It’s home to the engine company Cummins and to remarkable examples of modernist architecture and public art by such giants as Eliel and Eero Sarrinen, Harry Weese, Henry Moore, Dale Chihuly and others. It’s a place where a local architecture fan like Casey (Haley Lu Richardson, best known as Hailee Steinfeld’s levelheaded friend in The Edge Of Seventeen) can have a list of favorite buildings that runs deep into double digits — yet still yearn to escape.
In Columbus, the first feature from the single-named writer/director Kogonada, Columbus is also home to more than its share of discontentment. It’s beautiful, but for Casey it’s also something of a trap. A year out of high school with no college plans on the horizon and a mom (Michelle Forbes) with substance abuse issues, she feels stuck. Sure, her go-nowhere job involves working at a library designed by I.M. Pei, but it’s still a go-nowhere job.
If Casey sounds, in bare description, like an indie film cliché, so does Jin (John Cho), the film’s other protagonist. He’s called to Columbus from his translation job in Seoul when his father, a renowned professor of architecture, falls ill. With his life upended, he’s forced to confront their troubled relationship as his father hangs between life and death.