Once a fixture at the very top of the Hollywood A-List, Michelle Pfeiffer has no doubt earned the several lengthy breaks she’s taken from acting, but it’s always good to have her back.
Pfeiffer has the screen presence and gravitas of a “movie star” in the classical sense, and 2017 offered some particularly strong reminders of that. Last year, she memorably shared the small screen with Robert DeNiro in the Bernie Madoff biopic The Wizard of Lies, stood out among a stacked ensemble cast in Murder on the Orient Express, and – best of all – delivered a mesmerizing, go-for-broke supporting performance in Darren Aronofsky’s mother!
This fruitful return to the screen continues with Pfeiffer’s turn as the title character in Where is Kyra? The film’s dramatic weight rests largely on her shoulders, and as one might expect, she’s more than capable of carrying it.
“…what neglected, past-their-prime people need to do to survive when society has essentially left them no real path forward.”
A downbeat, social-realist character study about poverty and aging in America, Where is Kyra? comes to us from Nigerian-born director Andrew Dosunmu, who lends the film a melancholy, burnished tone and cannily expressive compositions that serve its central character’s loosening grasp on her own wellbeing. Within his lingering long takes and head-on, center-frame close-ups, Pfeiffer has the latitude to fully communicate Kyra’s inner workings onscreen, and the restrained screenplay by Darci Picoult (who collaborated with Dosunmu on his last film, 2013’s Mother of George) is smart to let her eyes and her face tell a lot of the story.
This is particularly true in the film’s agonizingly relatable opening sequences, which introduce Kyra as she painstakingly looks after her elderly, debilitated mother Ruth (Suzanne Shepherd). Dosunmu doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant realities of elder care, and he imbues the dimly lit interiors of Ruth’s antiques-laden Brooklyn apartment with a kind of religious solemnity; Kyra’s acts of bathing her ailing mom and pouring the small glass of wine that Ruth has pleaded with her for are framed almost as sacraments. We see evidence of Kyra’s tenderness here, but alongside that, Pfeiffer also silently gets across hints of the frustration and desperation that increasingly come to affect Kyra’s choices.
“…her presence is commanding even at its most understated.”
Life certainly isn’t easy in this opening act, but for Kyra, new to the city and unemployed, her mother is a financial and emotional lifeline that cruelly snaps away when Ruth finally succumbs to her illness. The film follows Kyra’s struggles in the aftermath of Ruth’s death, as she embarks on a futile search for low-paying jobs and strikes up a friendship and tentative romance with her neighbor Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), a part-time cab driver who himself is just about scraping by. Kyra is eventually led to less-than-legal means of keeping the lights on, and the film proceeds as an uncommonly forthright look at what neglected, past-their-prime people need to do to survive when society has essentially left them no real path forward.
Where is Kyra? might be too grim and too slow for most audiences, and though the film is both sharp in its observations and aesthetically impressive throughout, it lacks the kind of cathartic moments and reassuringly tidy resolution that might endear it to the average moviegoer. It’s hard to fault a movie for such steadfast consistency of tone, but that does mean that Where Is Kyra? can never hope to reach as many viewers as Pfeiffer’s most iconic performances have. She really is outstanding, here, and this is a much more rewarding effort than the usual case of a former studio-film superstar de-glamorizing herself for a capital-S-serious acting role. Pfeiffer isn’t shooting for the moments of big-scale emoting that (perhaps only) play well as awards-show highlight clips; there’s an introspection and lack of sentimentalizing to this portrayal that are a wonder to observe, and her presence is commanding even at its most understated. She also has a worthy counterpart in Sutherland, who’s charming and sympathetic in the kind of down-to-earth role that he ought to play more often.
It’s ironic, maybe, that Where is Kyra? serves as such a striking resurgence for its lead actress when the film so strongly articulates the hopelessness of its protagonist’s efforts to bounce back. It’s a difficult movie with little in the way of brightness – except, of course, for the still-spellbinding, still-essential actress whose talent radiates from its center.
Where Is Kyra? (2017). Directed by Andrew Dosunmu. Written by Darci Picoult. Starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Kiefer Sutherland, Suzanne Shepherd, Sam Robards, and Anthony Okungbowa
4 out of 5 stars