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Poverty and destitution never looked as gorgeous as they do in the moody art house drama Where Is Kyra? The third fiction feature from Sundance regular Andrew Dosunmu, after Mother of George and Restless City, casts Michelle Pfeiffer as an unemployed New Yorker whose money troubles grow exponentially after the death of her mother, who received a disability pension. This leads Kyra to do something rather radical that her sort-of boyfriend, played by Kiefer Sutherland, does not approve of.
Shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Bradford Young (Arrival) in what is arguably his career-best work in terms of the camerawork’s sheer breathtaking beauty, Where Is Kyra? sheds a most exquisitely modulated penumbral light on those in the margins of society that would normally remain invisible. Whether there is an audience for such a heavily aestheticized take on the hardships of poverty remains to be seen, however, and the film’s biggest commercial hurdle will likely be to try and avoid the moniker “poverty porn” at all costs.
The film opens with a long shot of an old lady slowly shuffling along a nondescript street in Queens in the mid-distance (variations on this image reappear throughout the film). It not only establishes Dosunmu’s most important visual leitmotif up front but also functions as a kind of litmus test for the audience: If you think this drawn-out, wordless scene is slow and/or devoid of interest, this movie is definitely not for you.
The screenwriter of Mother of George, Darci Picoult, wrote this film’s screenplay as well and her work here isn’t very dialogue-heavy. As if to mirror that idea visually, Nigerian-born Dosunmu and Young initially don’t even seem all that interested in the faces of the characters, with the early going playing out in medium shots, in which most of the action occurs behind doorposts or beyond a mirror frame, or in closer shots with an extremely limited depth of field. Even during the day, the light levels in the duo’s modest apartment are low, enveloping the characters in gorgeously textured shadows. Still, it is possible to piece together an idea of what’s happening: The ailing Ruth (the great Suzanne Shepherd) needs the help of her middle-aged daughter, Kyra (Pfeiffer), to do things as simple as take a bath. Or perhaps she pretends that she does, so that the out-of-work Kyra doesn’t feel entirely useless around the house and feels like she deserves her share of her mom’s disability checks.
Perhaps the first time in which we get a proper look at Kyra is an unexpected shot of her while taking public transportation. The close-up is so tight we don’t see if there are even any other people riding with her, but even so, the framing and the rather surreal play of light around and behind her suggests Kyra is something of an alien or at least an outsider. Indeed, Dosunmu often resorts to visuals rather than dialogue to tell the story, especially in the opening stretch, with audiences forced to piece together an idea of where this might be going before the director starts giving some clues after the death of Ruth, still pre-title card but already almost 20 minutes in.
The bulk of the film is concerned with Kyra’s ever-growing desperation as she fails to find a job and her money problems keep growing; her cards max out; the heating and then her phone — the latter crucially important when waiting for answers on job applications — get cut off and the threat of eviction looms. Unexpectedly, she strikes up a friendship-with-benefits of sorts with Doug (Sutherland), who works several odd jobs to keep afloat and who unexpectedly takes a shine to Kyra. In one of the film’s boldest visual moves, Dosunmu and Young keep their camera focused on their titular heroine at almost all times, with Doug often off-camera even when he’s speaking. It is here that a possible second meaning of the title starts to crystallize: We constantly see Kyra physically but is anyone still there, mentally? Is it possible for someone so consumed by her misfortune and constant money worries to still have dreams, desires and a personality?
Many of Kyra’s short-stop visits to dingy eateries and cluttered offices to ask for work are lit and framed in a way that recalls the striking urban loneliness of the paintings of Edward Hopper. And Philip Miller’s sparingly used, semi-experimental score screeches with agony and despair but in a way that feels more Williamsburg hipster than primal. Seeing the continued emphasis on these technical elements, a second question emerges: Is it possible for a viewer to be touched by a character’s predicament and despair when every element of their life is so strikingly arranged? Because Pfeiffer disappears into her role and plays it small, and because Dosunmu’s modus operandi privileges visuals and the unspoken over dialogue and facile melodrama, the film sort of gets away with it, if just barely.
Production companies: Great Point Media, Killer Films, Oldgarth Media
Cast: Michelle Pfeiffer, Kiefer Sutherland, Sam Robards, Tony Okungbowa, Marc Menchaca, Babs Olusanmokun, Joel Marsch Garland, Gabe Fazio, Suzanne Shepherd
Director: Andrew Dosunmu
Screenplay: Darci Picoult
Producers: Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Rhea Scott
Executive producers: Andrew Dosunmu, Darci Picoult, Erika Hampson, Jim Reeves, Robert Halmi Jr.
Director of photography: Bradford Young
Production designer: Lucio Seixas
Costume designer: Mobolaji Dawodu
Editor: Oriana Soddu
Music: Philip Miller
Casting: Susan Shopmaker
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
No rating, 98 minutes
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