Architecture can be understood as the spaces we build ourselves, in nature, to shelter us from harsh influences and provide the wherewithal to define our own existences. As such, the art and craft of architecture make a suitable metaphor for the art and craft of narrative storytelling or, indeed, cinema. So it's no surprise that first-time writer-director Kogonada -- whose fascination with film manifested previously in critical video essays about filmmakers like Richard Linklater and Hirokazu Koreeda -- should adopt that apt symbolism for his indie romance "Columbus."
Columbus, Indiana, has a reputation as a "mecca" for modernist architecture, with seven National Historic Landmarks chosen for their architectural significance. Four of those were designed by either Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen or his son Eero Saarinen, a bit of trivia that plays into the film's familial concerns. The leading characters find themselves feeling parental obligations that keep them, if only temporarily, trapped in the town. And yet, there's something magical and mysterious about the place and its buildings that bonds the two in mutual discovery.
One character has only known Columbus: college-age Casey (emotionally resonant up-and-comer Haley Lu Richardson) works in a library (where she rolls with the affections of a friend and potential boyfriend played by Rory Culkin) and as a tour guide, rattling off spiels about the town's significant buildings. Some of the buildings have special significance to her, a point investigated by intrigued newcomer Jin (John Cho of "Star Trek", who deserves this kind of showcase). Translator Jin arrives from his native Korea only reluctantly, summoned because his geographically and emotionally remote father, a noted architecture critic, fell critically ill there. Meanwhile, Casey feels the need to keep a watchful eye on her mother (Michelle Forbes, compelling as ever), whose addiction issues keep concern alive.
If the architecture they regard and discuss as Casey shows Jin the town serves to connect them, so do their disappointments, which they unconvincingly attempt to pin on their parents. As the film's title implies, individual and mutual breakthroughs are to be had on Kogonada's patient watch. One can easily identify the influences of Linklater (two smart people falling for each other over conversation conjures "The Before Trilogy") and Koreeda (the beautiful aesthetic, the lazy-river pacing, the familial concerns). Although the performances can at times feel a bit self-conscious in their slow-talking melancholy and the dialogue occasionally oversteps to make a point, the overall impression is one of elegant composition, especially in Elisha Christian's gorgeously on-point cinematography.
Kogonada's cleverly integrated use of the architecture, beautifully framed from visual and narrative standpoints, lends his freshman feature a sense of modernist mastery (astonishingly, the production lasted only 18 days). "Columbus" poses thoughtful questions about modern culture ("Are we losing interest in things that matter?... Are we losing interest in everyday life?"), the responsibilities we take for others' lives and our own, and the roles of art: it can be a distraction -- for better or worse -- but here, as a therapeutic enhancer of experience and comprehension, it draws the eye, the heart, the soul.