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.
That may sound like the sort of film you’ve seen before, and in some respects it is. Kogonada is less concerned with creative a dynamic narrative than pushing his protagonists, inch by stubborn inch, to meaningful realizations about their lives — often through earnest, late-night conversations — that we see coming long before they do. One needs to get out. The other needs to let the significance of the place sink in. It’s the stuff Sundance movies are made of.
But Columbus defies expectations in virtually every other sense. Best known for his remarkable video essays Kogonada brings a lifetime of studying cinematic language to the film. Each shot is as carefully planned and meticulously assembled as the buildings that often fill their frames. Several drinks into the night, Jin makes a pass at his lifelong crush, his father’s co-worker, played by Parker Posey. That it won’t end well is apparent from the start, less from the conversation than the way the director sets up the scene, with the action playing out in mirrors that keep each character separated, kept apart by far more than the length of a bedroom.
There’s not a dull image in the movie, and the unhurried pace can make even simple gestures seem breathtaking, as when Kogonada, after a scene that otherwise keeps its distance, cuts to a close-up Casey’s hand tracing the lines of a building while clutching a half-smoked cigarette. It’s a seemingly mundane moment that becomes almost magical thanks to the way it’s conveyed; there’s more than a cigarette burning when she talks about her passions. Both excellent, Richardson and Cho are tuned into Kogonada’s wavelength, never pushing to far characters defined in part by their inability to express themselves or share an honest emotion. Like the film around them, their work is made more moving by their restraint.
Early in the movie, Casey’s co-worker and sort-of crush (played by Rory Culkin) delivers a monologue about how what we usually talk about as diminishing attention spans is simply a matter of priorities getting shifted. Bookish people are bored, for instance, by video games in the same way that video game-loving people are bored when asked to read for long stretches. The film provides an unspoken rebuttal to that monologue, however. Bookish people know they can’t look away once they’ve learned about the pleasures of the text just as those who tuned into how movies work understand the value of watching carefully. In its best moments, Columbus doubles as a reminder that films speak in a language all their own, and that language often cuts deeper than words.
Columbus opens in limited release on Friday, August 4th before expanding.