In the best films and the best art, form does not follow function, nor vice-versa. Instead, they work in tandem, each supporting a critical synthesis in every moment, like the double-helix of DNA. This doesn’t mean that films that don’t accomplish this, or don’t even aspire to, can’t be good, even great. But the best films both reach for and achieve that critical synthesis, often leaving permanent gifts to the craft and language of cinema along the way. Even films that have the superficial indicia of modesty, compactness, or intimacy can and do achieve this. It’s not about bigness; it’s about purpose, precision, and every element working support of every other.
The problem with Where is Kyra is that it doesn’t do this, even though it thinks it does. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it does do this, but only in a way that has other consequences the film either can’t negotiate, didn’t realize it had to, or chose not to. If the latter two, this is a mistake; these consequences prevent Where is Kyra, a film that does so much right with so many strong elements, from achieving what it could have achieved. Where is Kyra has the potential for greatness in its foundations, but along the path towards realization, something critical was lost.
Kyra (Michelle Pfeiffer) is a woman who is struggling. The precise nature of her struggle, and how she got to the point we found her at the beginning of the film, are only slowly doled out to us. But the underlying causes of her struggle – the social invisibility of older, single women; the cost, the toll, the degradation of poverty; our society’s lack of any true safety net – are plain from the film’s first moments. Indeed, they are Where is Kyra’s clear subjects, and they are shown without a hint of romanticism, exploitation, or easy sympathy.
What director Andrew Dosunmu and his DP Bradford Young accomplish that is both very intelligent, but also its downfall, is to try to literalize its themes through its craft. Kyra’s social and economic marginalization is expressed by literally marginalizing her in the frame, showing her enveloped by spaces, or only obliquely. Kyra’s life, and her perspective, are muddled and being consumed by darkness; therefore, so is the cinematography. But these choices, along with others, distance us from Kyra, her story and her circumstances, creating gulf between us and the narrative in a way that undercuts the natural tendency of film towards empathy. This is not an impossible task by any measure – Keane, Siddharth, and most recently The Florida Project are all films that find strategies to thread the challenges in depicting socially and economically marginalized people and achieve something special. Where is Kyra is keenly aware of those same challenges, and it avoids almost every pitfall. But it never ascends, either.
In the end, Where is Kyra is far from a bad film – in fact, in many important ways, it’s quite a good one – but instead it’s something almost worse: a disappointing one. Anchored around terrific performances from Pfeiffer and Kiefer Sutherland, Where is Kyra deserves to be applauded for everything it does right, which is more than most films. But the gap between what it does and what it could have done is almost as large, and looms even larger. Where is Kyra is a good film begging to be great; if only it could have been.