There are plenty of easy jokes to make about the title of Where Is Kyra?, given how purposely underlit the entire movie is. But director and co-writer Andrew Dosunmu (Mother of George) takes everything about his story very, very seriously, which works when the movie is a low-key character study about a woman dealing with grief and financial hardship, and less so when it becomes a sort of slow-motion absurdist thriller in its final act. Michelle Pfeiffer, who’s been mounting an impressive comeback with roles in movies like Mother! and The Wizard of Lies, plays the title character, a morose, unemployed divorcée whose life is focused on taking care of her fragile elderly mother (Suzanne Shepherd).
When Kyra’s mother passes away quietly, it becomes clear that the old woman was the only way that Kyra was staying afloat, providing both a purpose to Kyra’s life and the funds (via pension checks) to maintain her living situation. Dosunmu puts Kyra through a series of humiliating situations as she plunges further and further into financial ruin, enduring doomed job interviews, selling off most of her mother’s possessions and even groveling in the home of her ex-husband and his pregnant new wife when she has nowhere else to turn.
She also continues cashing those pension checks, which keep coming thanks to a paperwork snafu, and her efforts at deception eventually derail the movie’s understated, naturalistic storyline. Kyra gets increasingly in over her head in her efforts to keep the money coming, and while most of her problems are sadly relatable and commonplace, an elaborate deception involving a wig, a disguise and a fake ID is not one of them.
Before that subplot takes over the narrative, though, Dosunmu paints a bleak but compelling portrait of a woman at the end of her rope, and Pfeiffer imbues Kyra with a desperate, nervous energy without making her unpleasant to be around. The movie even finds room for a few moments of levity, thanks to a sweet and easygoing romance between Kyra and her compassionate neighbor Doug (Kiefer Sutherland)—although that relationship, too, ends up soured before too long.
All of the interactions are shrouded in darkness thanks to the gorgeous but deliberately frustrating cinematography by Oscar nominee Bradford Young (Arrival, Selma). Nearly every space is so dimly lit that the characters are often difficult or impossible to make out. Even when there’s a light source, it’s as if the light never permeates the rest of the frame, remaining trapped within the lamp or bulb. Dusunmu and Young often shoot conversations with only one of the participants in frame, or keep actors out of focus in favor of background elements.
It’s a bold visual style that could be seen as representative of Kyra’s diminished position in the world, and Young balances the lights and darks and some lovely rich colors so that the images look beautiful, even if they’re difficult to parse. Like the storyline, though, that visual style eventually becomes more frustrating than rewarding, leaving Kyra stranded in the dark.