Set in Columbus, Ind., a mecca of midcentury modernist architecture — who knew? — “Columbus” begins with the collapse of a renowned architecture scholar who’s in town to give a talk. Shortly after the academic slips into a coma, his 40-something son, Jin (John Cho), flies in from Seoul to be with him, waiting, either for death or — less likely — recovery.
Jin is prickly and serious, and he doesn’t want to be in Columbus, mostly because his father never took much interest in him. But he finds a glimmer of light in his isolation: a 19-year-old local named Casey (a tremendous Haley Lu Richardson). She’s a smart, kindhearted “architecture nerd,” as Jin puts it, who works at the city library and who befriends Jin despite his standoffish first impression. She insists on giving him a tour of all the gems that Columbus has to offer.
The relationship between the pair is reminiscent of the one in “Lost in Translation.” Jin and Casey are both lonely and a little adrift, but they ground, challenge and entertain each other. Their bond isn’t explicitly romantic, but they become deeply connected if only because, at that moment, what each of them needs is a true friend. Despite their different backgrounds and ages, they have parental issues in common. Just as Jin is stuck in Columbus with his estranged father, Casey has decided to forgo college to stay close to her mother, who has struggled in the past to be a responsible adult.
In his feature debut, writer-director Kogonada reveals his characters slowly. He’s also languorous with his camera — a boon considering all of the gorgeous eye candy in the city, from the Eero Saarinen-designed home of industrialist and architecture patron J. Irwin Miller — now a house museum — to a funky observation tower by Stanley Saitowitz, part of the 85-acre Mill Race Park. Often, the camera just sits and watches, patiently letting characters move in and out of frame. Each beautifully composed shot is its own fleeting work of art.
The greatest revelation about the movie — other than the magnificent city in which it was filmed — is Richardson. As Casey, she’s almost painfully open, never fully concealing how deeply wounded she is, despite her cheery facade. Even at her most joyous, she seems as if she could be on the verge of tears, and she becomes the heart of a story that’s disarmingly emotional, considering its avoidance of histrionics. Jin is more inscrutable, and although Kogonada is fine with keeping the audience in the dark about certain facts, the character’s disengagement is frustrating at times, pulling the audience back from the edge of catharsis.
The director’s greatest strength lies in creating a mood. “Columbus” is melancholy without being morose, and talky without forced cleverness. The drama is a realistic and methodical meditation on family obligation, personal sacrifice and — of course — the power of architecture. That makes “Columbus” as lovely to look at as it is to ponder.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language. 104 minutes.