Michelle Pfeiffer is a much different woman in Where Is Kyra? than many of the roles we’ve seen her in. She spends most of the film in the shadows or concealing her identity within oversized clothing—but when she finally comes out of the darkness, be it for an emotional plea or an affectionate love scene, she shines like a diamond for a role in which she is wrinkled, weary, and a mess. It’s remarkable how Pfeiffer has gone missing within supporting parts for many years, only to be in a film where she is both present and not present, daring us to seek her out in a movie where she all but vanishes into the lighting.
Here is a premise that could have quickly been turned into a comedy of tackiness. Kyra (Pfeiffer) is a divorced and unemployed woman who spends her time in her city apartment helping her ailing mother get through the day. She tries to find a job, but the market is dry for a woman like her. Her life gets worse when her mother breathes her last breath; the funeral is heartbreaking enough, but the pain only continues when an error in the death certificate leads to Kyra posing as her mom and withdrawing money from her account to keep the apartment. It’s a bad idea, but as we quickly learn, Kyra isn’t one to ask for help. She’d much rather disguise herself in her mother’s bulky clothing and cash her checks without being noticed.
Kyra is presented with several outs but refuses them as much as she can, somewhat attracted to the disappearing act even as it grows ever more stressful. She forms a relationship at the bar with her neighbor Doug (Kiefer Sutherland) that turns sincere and intimate. She’s content to snatch fries off his plate but uncomfortable with taking his money. Her mistakes continue to frustrate him, putting their relationship to the ultimate test for Kyra as she reckons with her many debts and mistakes in dealing with her income. Though she has little in the way of family, made clear from the sparsely attended funeral, Kyra makes the tough choice of asking for a loan. But this will not end her problem and only amplifies her humiliation over her financial state, which she believes is a hell too thick to escape from.
Much like how John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place used the negative space of silence in its soundtrack, director Andrew Dosunmu uses the darkness in Where Is Kyra? to such a degree that Pfeiffer can easily slink into it like a curtain of ink. Credit should be given to cinematographer Bradford Young for finding ways to not only shoot Kyra’s world as a bleak one but also to perfectly position shadows and reflections. The camera keeps its distance, turning the audience into a standoffish player that doesn’t want to get too involved in the many scenes between Pfeiffer and Sutherland in which they’re either arguing or making love.
The tension here is both quiet and nerve-wracking. Every time Kyra throws on the wig, sunglasses, dress, and cane to assume the role of her mother, there’s the consistent sound of scraping on the soundtrack, akin to a chair being dragged across a tiled floor. There’s conflict in how we’re supposed to feel about Kyra—whether to take pity as her family or boom with frustration as Doug slowly learns about her problem. What helps is that she is kept as an enigma in her staging, always distant, so we’re led by her secretive and unsound means of stability to be more curious than we are judgmental.
Where Is Kyra? is the type of drama that quietly creeps under the skin and haunts you, with its dark cinematography and Pfeiffer’s unflinching performance. Perhaps her best moment in the film is when she struggles to form the words to ask for a loan for her troubles. Watch how her face flinches and her mind races with anxiety as she stumbles her way through her plea, the camera holding on her for an extended period without a cut in her dialogue. It’s an astonishing performance that makes me wish she’d come out of the shadows more often.