In 1997, Amos Kollek made a movie called “Sue,” a tiny arthouse drama that surely still haunts those who were lucky enough to catch it. The unforgettable Anna Thomson played the titular lost soul, a fragile beauty who falls into a chasm of poverty.
There’s a good chance contemporary audiences will have the same response to Andrew Dosunmu’s “Where is Kyra?” — another deceptively modest indie in which an incandescent actress embodies one woman’s increasingly muted life.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Kyra, in a bit of unexpected casting that adds a potent cruelty to an already heartbreaking story. There is no hiding Pfeiffer’s beauty, but it feels almost mocking here, like a promise held just out of reach.
The film opens with a touching delicacy, but there are hints of inevitable loss. Kyra moved to Brooklyn to care for her aging mother (Suzanne Shepherd, “The Sopranos”), which has become an all-encompassing responsibility. And when it ends, she finds herself without any resources at all.
Looking for work becomes her work; Kyra gets up and dressed every day despite increasing evidence that her efforts will lead to nothing. Since she’s down to her last savings, she can’t afford a single mistake. But of course we all make errors constantly, tiny ones that can be fixed with just a little time, or care, or cash. These are luxuries Kyra doesn’t have.
She does find a new boyfriend in Doug (Kiefer Sutherland), who holds the only promise in her dim life. He’s sweet and thoughtful, and has recently made his own way out of a personal crisis. He’s got the perspective she needs, but calm clarity is just another extravagance for those in the midst of calamity.
Despite the high-wattage leads, Dosunmu and screenwriter Darci Picoult (who also made the excellent “Mother of George” together) have fashioned a determinedly miniscule drama. Doug is a little too movie-perfect, but Sutherland provides a crucial respite from so much misery. And Pfeiffer is here not as a luminous star but as an accomplished actor, burrowing into the dusty loneliness of her character’s life.
This is such an intimate story that cinematographer Bradford Young (“Arrival”) often shoots Pfeiffer in closeup even when she’s talking to someone else. In fact, there’s so much anxiety suffusing every scene — in Kyra’s taut face, in Young’s spare compositions, in the ominous and overwrought score (by Philip Miller) — we might as well be watching a thriller.
When Kyra goes to the bank, or gets on the bus, or hears her doorbell ring, things that mean almost nothing to most people, there’s always potential for something to go wrong. And her margin of safety is so thin, each decision is made in the moment without concern about long-term consequences.
Doug, a health-care aide, chastises her for smoking, but we know better. Every carefully-crafted scene reminds us that Kyra is deeply unimportant in the world, according to the world. Life goes on whether she exists or not, a fact made achingly clear during a poignant visit to her ex-husband.
With no job, no family, and no backup plan, each dwindling day serves as the only protection she has between herself and an unsparing abyss. That we watch the ticking moments of “Where Is Kyra?” with so much concern is a testament to the filmmakers and cast determined to elevate her unnoticed life.