The man, who is reaching the middle of his life, has arrived in the city, not by choice, but by happenstance. The young woman, who has just reached adulthood, wants to stay in the city for her mother's sake. These two souls, in transitional periods of their respective lives, meet at perhaps the wrong moment for both, but Columbus does not envision some unlikely romance between them. The screenplay by director Kogonada (an auspicious debut twofold for the filmmaker) wisely considers its two primary characters separately with as much precision as it stages long, wide, oft-unbroken shots that take in the surrounding architecture.
That attention to architecture proves important, too, for the subject of study is what initially unites these characters. Jin (John Cho) has arrived in the titular city in Indiana to deal with his father's belongings and dealings after a stroke incapacitates the older man. Jin claims not to care, and to borderline-hate, anything to do with architecture but also seems encyclopedic in his knowledge of the stuff, a recital of the history of one building's design offering insight into this curious element of his personality. He has regrets, but he is also adamant about his apathy toward the old man.
Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) has lived in Columbus her whole life. She's already graduated college, but she lingers within its halls, shelving books in the university library to sustain herself until better options come along. Her dad is not present, and her mother (played by Michelle Forbes) hides an addiction that Casey was sure had been resolved years earlier. She isn't interested, at least for a time, in leaving this mundane life, though. She has a potentially lucrative offer from a personal hero, but she's rebuffed it, perhaps due to finding comfort in the static and perhaps through unspoken fears of becoming her parents.
The film is at its best in the conversation between these two wandering souls, discussing life, dreams, disappointments, fears, loves, and guilt. In one moment that allows for privacy between the two, Jin asks Casey why she admires a certain building. After providing two answers that seem to be dodging the question, she gives the real answer, which we don't get to hear. The sheer goodness of the performances by Richardson and Cho in this moment sums up the appeal of the actors in these roles. Richardson, especially, has such an engaged personality (and an engaging smile) that it's infectious, and Cho handles a tricky emotional terrain well.
The film's potency does waver with the introduction of a pair of supporting characters that add unnecessary interpersonal tension for the two. For Jin, it is the will-they-won't-they tension of a potential romance with one of his father's colleagues (played by Parker Posey), to whom the old man meant everything, and for Casey, it is the friendship/borderline-romance with Gabriel (Rory Culkin), a millennial young man with millennial concerns. A film of such neat simplicity doesn't need the distraction of these two when they enter what narrative there is. Columbus finds its wisdom through conversation, shared parental concerns, and two lovely performances.
John Cho (Jin), Haley Lu Richardson (Casey), Parker Posey (Eleanor), Michelle Forbes (Maria), Rory Culkin (Gabriel).
Directed and written by Kogonada.
No MPAA rating.
Released in select cities on August 4, 2017.