The New York City of Where Is Kyra? abounds in labyrinthine nooks and crannies that obscure people from one another, almost willing certain folks out of existence. Director Andrew Dosunmu lingers on pedestrians navigating the streets and disappearing behind buildings or panes of glass. Bradford Young’s cinematography is frequently and pointedly dark, suggesting a vampire film or a noir, blurring the specifics of faces, and, in many images, doors and columns are used to create an in-camera split-screen effect, further isolating the characters. The film is all-caps lonely, and Dosunmu’s aesthetic is accomplished and affected even by his considerable standards.
Where Is Kyra? recalls Oren Moverman’s Time Out of Mind, which also merges an attractive movie star into a stifling environment marked by economic instability. Kyra, an unemployed woman set financially adrift after the death of her mother, is played by Michelle Pfeiffer, and it’s startling to see how casually Dosunmu goes about hiding her from us, blending her into the fabric of a city as certainly as he does the film’s less famous actors. Here, Pfeiffer’s dressed-down glamour suggests the talent of a woman that’s gone undernourished due to the malaise of loneliness and prolonged unemployment.
But Pfeiffer isn’t simply a found object in an ambitious art film, as her ferociously vulnerable and intelligent performance elucidates the pain, resentment, and fear that springs from escalating disappointment. Pfeiffer informs Kyra with a fragile mixture of empathy and rage, which is particularly on display when Kyra cares for her mother, Ruth, who’s played by Suzanne Shepard with a wily and commanding dignity. Kyra is understood by Pfeiffer to be taking qualified pleasure in her own effacement, as it implies an escape from a world that has rejected her. Early in the film, we see Kyra preparing a bath for Ruth, and a mirror fashions a prism in which mother and daughter are cordoned off from one another yet simultaneously visible, evoking the punishing intimacy, and the comfort, of caring for a dependent.
Ruth’s apartment is a collection of old things, and one of the film’s most acutely painful motifs involves the gradual selling of Ruth’s furniture, as Kyra needs the money. The emptying of this home comes to embody the erosion of the shield that Ruth provided Kyra—and Dosunmu, for all his flamboyant stylization, wisely allows this symbol to speak for itself. Dosunmu’s leisurely pacing, which hardens the film’s melancholia into fine crystal, also serves as a form of sly misdirection. Terror gradually leaks into the narrative, transforming Where Is Kyra? into a haunting non-traditional thriller.
When Ruth dies, Kyra begins to impersonate her mother so that she can continue to cash her pension checks. This plot turn is foreshadowed early, when Ruth and Kyra are seen respectively getting dressed—their rituals indicating the similarities between mother and daughter, and which are united in a socially indoctrinated pressure that women maintain youthfulness for as long as they wish to remain relevant. Kyra’s masquerade has profound significance, allowing her to have a preview of advanced age while sampling a financial stability that she might never again know. Her disappearance into her mother also suggests the personal erosion caused by poverty. Wracked by debt and cacophony, people come to feel that they’re nothing other than the sum of their problems, and that their personal agency has blown away.
Where Is Kyra? would have benefitted from a more fulsome exploration of Kyra’s inhabitation of Ruth. Like many earnest filmmakers tackling economic turmoil, Dosunmu is also overly enraptured with the pregnant music of miserable people not speaking, or speaking in clipped functionalities. Kyra becomes romantically involved with another troubled individual, Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), and one wishes that Dosunmu had occasionally allowed his charismatic actors to straightforwardly engage with one another, unencumbered by forbidding shadows and other tropes of alienation. But Where Is Kyra? casts a lingering pall, ending on an exquisite irony: that Kyra’s downfall might be a relief, allowing her to decisively vanish.