“Modernism of the soul.” This is the way Jin (John Cho) describes the latest research of his architecture professor father to his new young friend Casey (Haley Lu Richardson).
It’s a phrase that also perfectly sums up “Columbus,” the film by Kogonada. This is a film about architecture – specifically, the uniquely modernist buildings in the small, Midwestern town of Columbus, Ind. – and the film itself is architectural in style, creating a perfect symbiosis of style and story. But the film transcends its intellectual structures to strike a unique emotional chord.
Jin rushes to Columbus when his father collapses and is hospitalized. It seems he’s in a coma, though that word is never mentioned. Jin is a melancholy outsider who meets a melancholy insider, Casey, sharing cigarettes over the fence of the local inn where he’s staying. Casey is a local self-taught architecture nerd, skipping college to work at the library and live at home with mom (Michelle Forbes). She’s taught herself modernism in her hometown, basking in the glow of the Deborah Berke-designed Irwin Union Bank, committing facts about Eero Saarinen to memory while exploring his North Christian Church.
Casey, intrigued by Jin and his blasé attitude about architecture, pursues a friendship with him, sharing her favorite buildings in Columbus with him. During these excursions, the two share deep talks about their ambitions or lack thereof, their troubled relationships with their parents, their past struggles. Along the way, a goal crystallizes for Jin: to get Casey to pursue higher education and a career in architecture, a dream she’s put off to stay close to her recovering-addict mother.
But this isn’t just a film about characters, it’s about these characters in relationship to their environment, and Kogonada never lets us forget that. Jin and Casey are always just one part of the frame, surrounded by doorways, or dwarfed by enormous structures of…