Set in Columbus, Ind., a mecca of midcentury modernist architecture, "Columbus" begins with the collapse of a renowned architecture scholar in town to give a talk. After the academic slips into a coma, his 40-something son, Jin (John Cho), flies in from Seoul to wait for death or 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: 19-year-old local Casey (a tremendous Haley Lu Richardson). She's a smart, kindhearted "architecture nerd" who works at the library and befriends Jin. She insists on giving him a tour of all the gems Columbus has to offer.
Jin and Casey are 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 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 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. Often, the camera patiently lets 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 concealing how deeply wounded she is despite her cheery facade. She becomes the heart of a story that's disarmingly emotional yet sans histrionics. Jin is more inscrutable, and his 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, methodical meditation on family obligation, personal sacrifice and the power of architecture.