When committing to an authentic depiction a life lived in desperation and hopelessness, how thoroughly can you strip away any semblance of light or hope without punishing the viewer? It’s not clear if that question ever crossed Andrew Dosunmu’s mind while making Where is Kyra?, his gorgeous, daunting and draining follow-up to the vibrant, conflicted marital drama of Mother of George. Committed as ever to revealing life on the New York fringes to those who’d rather shield themselves from others’ suffering, some viewers may feel their admiration of Dosunmu’s work wilting into distress as they watch an aging, neglected Michelle Pfeiffer plummet into demeaning obscurity. An empathetic wake up call to the New York elites who can afford to behold it, for viewers who are similarly struggling to maintain their dignity in working class America, Where is Kyra? may simply add up to a suffocating nightmare.
Things are already bleak on the outset of Where is Kyra?, as a trembling, elderly lady slowly lumbers across the frame, unnoticed and ignored by everyone she passes. Back home, we discover life’s perhaps even less forgiving for her daughter and caretaker Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer, petrifying in slim black eye-liner). Recently divorced and still struggling to find employment in the crushing enormity of New York, her lone saving grace is her pension-approved mother, who’s slowly decaying within the dark, gloomy amber enclosures of her apartment. In a jarring establishing shot, we’re introduced to Kyra and her mother, Ruth, in maximum obscurity, only slight slivers of their bodies visible between the cracked doors of their apartment. Even before her mother’s inevitable passing, Kyra is already just as neglected.
Aside from the burgeoning interest of Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), Kyra’s social and business prospects descend ever more quickly once Ruth moves on to, surely, a better place. One humiliating application slip-up after another, every reasonable job opportunity flits out of her grasp. All the while, editor Oriana Soddu brings us repeatedly back to the film’s opening motif, of Kyra’s mother, covered and withered, slowly, excruciatingly making her way across the screen. What seemingly starts as an oppressive omen of the vagabond lifestyle awaiting Kyra eventually reveals itself to be, shockingly, an even more depressing, demeaning future for our crumbling lead. As majestically shot by recent Oscar nominee Bradford Young (Arrival), Brooklyn is a dank, dingy purgatory, draining its inhabitants of every ounce of life, love and dignity they have left.
There’s hardly a dash of levity in Dosunmu’s film, the only fleeting moment of joy, Kyra jump-roping at an apartment complex gathering, being solemnly slowed into a kind of wrenching elegy for the last moments of happiness one feels in their life. Even at 98 minutes, Where is Kyra crawls dourly along with the pace and discipline of a Romanian New Wave film. If there’s any joy to be derived from this crushing experience, it’s in once again getting to watch Michelle Pfeiffer stunningly persevere onscreen. While her face and body may be devastatingly obscured for most of the film, she gets two shining moments, both dark and demanding long takes. Whether she’s explaining how her search has brought her low or we simply see it on her broken, deadening face, Pfeiffer holds our fascination through the musty thicket of Dosunmu’s commanding, if insurmountably challenging, latest.