Spare, grim, and unsentimental, Andrew Dosunmu’s indie drama Where Is Kyra? addresses the plight of anonymous city dwellers who are one step from destitution. Michelle Pfeiffer’s raw, lupine portrayal of Kyra captures the slow, miserable grind of creeping poverty and its debilitating effect on reason.
A divorced woman, perhaps in her late forties, Kyra has been unemployed for two years. She turns up for successive job interviews, but cannot get hired because younger, prettier applicants are available, or because her nerves let her down; sometimes she is too late in applying for different positions. She goes from seeking secretarial work to handing out flyers on the street.
Living with her elderly, infirm mother (Suzanne Shepherd) in the latter’s poky, dingy apartment, Kyra has become dependent for survival on handouts from mom’s pension check. When the old lady dies, Kyra fails to register her death certificate. Desperate for money, she puts on mom’s wig, sunglasses, and clothes. makes regular expeditions to the bank, and signs illegally for the continuing checks. She thus digs a deep hole for herself.
Written by Darci Picoult, who previously scripted Dosunmu’s 2013 fertility drama Mother of George, Where Is Kyra? may be bleak, but it’s not without humor or theatricalism. The spectacle of Kyra-in-disguise convincingly shambling across a mall car park or up to a bank teller is amusing and enlightening, partly because she’s cheating a system that’s left her on a trash heap, partly because anyone who peered closely at this crone would see that she’s a beautiful middle-aged woman. That it takes a long time for anyone to twig Kyra’s deceit testifies to public disregard for people: as society itself is faceless, so it would impose facelessness on individuals.
Kyra is not as lonely as the character in the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” Early on she goes to a bar and hooks up with an old acquaintance, Doug (sympathetically played by Kiefer Sutherland). They meet for further drinking and sex and become emotionally dependent on each other without exactly falling in love. Like Kyra, Doug is scraping a living; he works as an airport driver and as a care home helper. Appalled by Kyra’s defrauding the bank, he ends their relationship. When she returns to him with the law on her tail, he must decide whether to stand by or abandon her.
As a Nigerian in Brooklyn, Dosunmu may feel the fear of marginalization more keenly than most. The Brooklyn of the film is not so much hostile as alienating. Cindy Sherman’s photography was a touchstone for him, and Bradford Young’s cinematography captures sunless, blurry, washed-out cityscapes that are mirrored in Kyra’s wanness and the pale yellow coat she wears. The interiors have a Rembrandt-ian darkness. It’s as if Kyra grew out of the borough’s unstable, night-shaded firmament. Whenever Kyra makes a mistake, Philip Miller’s score erupts in a disconcerting clangor.
No matter how many homeless people we see on New York’s streets and subways, it requires a leap of imagination for the rest of us to understand what it would be like to live without a roof and regular food and warmth. Dosunmu’s direction and Pfeiffer’s performance take the viewer to the brink of that horror.
Where Is Kyra? opens on Friday, April 6 in New York.