There has always been an air of loneliness about Michelle Pfeiffer onscreen. Even in her glamorous, gorgeous movie-star heyday, she often played women who were somewhat removed from the world. It wasn't so much unapproachability or aloofness that she conveyed, but a reserve that suggested melancholy, pain, dreams deferred.
I hadn't fully realized this until I saw Andrew Dosunmu's marvelous, shattering Where is Kyra?, in which the actress is often the sole figure onscreen, playing a New York woman sliding deeper into poverty and despair. Although the film might seem a departure for her -- and at least in terms of budget, it certainly is -- watching it, I felt that Dosunmu had connected to something elemental within Pfeiffer, that solitude that brought subtle dimension to her earlier, more famous roles. This is the kind of part and the kind of performance that makes you see an actor's entire career in a new light. And it's probably the best she's ever been.
When we first meet Pfeiffer's Kyra, she's living in a small, cluttered apartment caring for her elderly, ailing mother. She already seems like she's at the end of her rope … and then mom dies. Unable to find any work, Kyra descends further into desperation. She strikes a tensely romantic relationship with a nursing home attendant (played by Kiefer Sutherland); he's poor, too, but at least he has money for beer and food, and he likes spending it on her. Is she with him because she needs help or does she really care for him? It's a story about the things we do to survive in extreme circumstances, and Dosunmu's grim gaze never wavers from Kyra's predicament.