The death of a parent is a final cutting of the apronstrings, a literal disassociation from the life you grew up with into the harsh world of adulthood. For some people, this is less of a shock if you exit the house at 18. For others, a dependent connection to a parent – enhanced by sickness or the like – can leave a child completely adrift. Andrew Dosunmu’s Where is Kyra? is one such story of a woman’s struggle to find independence and autonomy in the wake of her mother’s death. Meditative and stark, Where is Kyra? is so hypnotic it almost induces sleep, but Michelle Pfeiffer’s entrancing performance is more than capable of commanding people to watch.
Kyra Johnson (Pfieffer) is the sole caretaker for her aging mother. When her mother passes away Kyra finds herself in a constant struggle to support herself and soon starts committing insurance fraud.
Dosunmu and screenwriter Darci Picoult craft a moody, somber tale of loneliness in the wake of a parent’s death. Kyra has spent several years of her life caring for the woman she still calls “Mommy.” As well-adjusted as Kyra seemingly is, the movie slowly reveals how she has been troubled since before her mother’s demise and, possibly, uses the preceding years as an excuse for her failure to find a job. Surrounded in a house filled with furniture from the 1950s, Kyra comes off as completely disconnected from the world around her. She applies for jobs by using newspapers and applying in person, only to be told the positions have been filled weeks ago. Is this intentional self-sabotage or something else?
It’s been over ten years since Michelle Pfeiffer starred in a leading role and it’s frustrating to hear that because Where is Kyra? is her feature! Stripped down with little makeup and mousy brown hair, Pfeiffer effortlessly conveys Kyra’s vulnerability, her melancholy, and her ability to deceive. She spends her days in quiet contemplation, yet comes alive when the possibility of a job is on the horizon. Her relationship with Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), an attendant for the elderly, never feels like lasting love but an additional way to staunch her loneliness. Sutherland, to his credit, is given as much characterization as Pfeiffer. He has a daughter he hasn’t seen, and he’s as adrift as her.
What’s fascinating, especially when talking to Dosunmu himself about the film, is the role money does play. Too often films play fast and loose with poverty, creating a world where people are “poor” but still have great apartments and cell phones. Dosunmu is realistic. Kyra doesn’t have a cell phone, and many of the people she meets are struggling just as much as she is. Everyone is living just enough to stay above water, but too cash poor to lose everything.
Through an accident – or another intentional “error” – of incorrectly listing her mother as alive Kyra finds herself without money and resorting to cashing her mother’s pension checks. Because her mother is dead, Kyra takes to dressing up like her mother to get the money. This kicks the plot into high gear after nearly 30 minutes of somber, meditative shots of Pfeiffer and her cute encounters with Doug. Once Kyra dips her toe into criminal waters she goes all in. Much of her decision making is written as relatable “get rich quick” schemes, ie that if she can just get a job she can quit doing what she’s doing. Yet the more she starts to inhabit her mother the more complacent with her lot she seemingly becomes.
Darci Picoult’s script lays out the painful truths we often seek to avoid about us and our parents. The death of Kyra’s mother should give her independence, yet it emotionally strangles her. The script feels like there’s hardly any dialogue at times and you’re left reliant on Pfeiffer’s expressions, a feature compounded by the use of natural light that often completely obscures certain scenes. (Where is Kyra? is a film that assumed it would play on a big screen.)
Where is Kyra? is an introspective, if underfilled feature. Michelle Pfeiffer lays herself bare in a performance that showcases her talent, her sensitivity, and her vulnerability. It’s a performance that burns from the inside out.