Andrew Dosunmu’s Where Is Kyra? and Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner appear to have very little in common other than the fact that they both feature a star actress getting her biggest and best role in years: Michelle Pfeiffer in the former, Salma Hayek in the latter. But if recent months have taught us anything, it is that everything means something more now — that every film, good or bad, reverberates out into a world of pain and fear and political urgency.
Pfeiffer is often the sole figure onscreen in Where Is Kyra?, playing a Brooklyn woman who falls into increasingly dire circumstances after the passing of her ailing mother, whom she had been taking care of for some time. Unable to find any work — she’s either too old, too late or too poor to get the gigs — Pfeiffer’s Kyra descends further into desperation. She strikes up a romantic relationship with a nursing home attendant (played by Kiefer Sutherland) who himself is trying to stay on the straight and narrow after screwing up his life. 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? The reasons aren’t clear to us — and they’re probably not clear to Kyra either.
The story turns on what might have been just a quirky plot point in another movie: When mom’s pension checks keep coming even after her death, Kyra begins dressing as the dead woman to try to cash them at the bank. This is not, however, the story of a grifter or a welfare cheat. It’s about the things we do to survive in extreme circumstances, and Dosunmu’s grim gaze never wavers from Kyra’s predicament. The director, whose last film was the sublime Mother of George (written, like Kyra, by Darci Picoult) and cinematographer Bradford Young sheathe Kyra in oppressive darkness, and they hold on her for extended periods — even when other characters are speaking or acting. Close-ups often show her half-concealed in the gloom, emerging from pitch-black corners of the screen. No lamp gives off enough light, no street scene is bright enough. A pall has descended over this woman’s life. Rarely on film has the sheer debilitating exhaustion of poverty been so clearly conveyed.
The director is fond of static, off-balance compositions with very shallow focus, but he also likes to point his camera directly into his actress’s face, one of the great visages of modern cinema. Pfeiffer is beautiful, but when we look at Kyra we see fatigue, anger, loneliness, hopelessness. The way Dosunmu shoots her, she feels somehow both fragile and unchanging: It wouldn’t take much to turn Kyra herself into a blur, to erase her from the screen completely; but the broader sorrow that she represents will never go away. Where Is Kyra? She’s in the midst of disappearing, but she’s also everywhere.
Beatriz at Dinner is an entirely lighter tale on its surface, but it too goes to bleak places. Hayek plays a Mexican-American massage therapist and holistic medical worker whose car breaks down while she’s at the home of wealthy client Cathy (Connie Britton). With some trepidation, Cathy and her husband, Grant (David Warshofsky), invite Beatriz to join the dinner party they’re hosting for his billionaire developer boss, a man with the wonderfully Trumpian name of Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). As the evening proceeds, Beatriz is privy to Doug and the others’ smug conversations about bypassing regulations, gaming the system, displacing people and animals and entire villages; this triggers her own memories of her town in Mexico being wiped out by a rapacious hotel developer. Arteta deftly portrays the cocoon of wealth and the shamelessness of those who seek it at all costs: Doug can say whatever he wants, because he’s surrounded by sycophants and others who feed on his money and power. Beatriz, we sense, has been let in on a gathering that people like her are not supposed to see.
That’s a pretty simple setup, but Arteta and screenwriter Mike White find nuance in the conflict. Beatriz takes her job as a healer seriously, and she believes that she can connect with the pain and the memories of others. As the evening wears on and she has more wine, the initially understated Beatriz speaks frankly, even naively — as if she believes she might enter into actual dialogue with people who have such privilege and wealth.
This might be the best performance Salma Hayek has ever given, her quiet, observant reserve eventually giving way to bewilderment and resolve. And her inner turmoil is a powerfully relevant one: How does a person committed to healing — to being principled, empathetic and good — handle first contact with the devils who think nothing of destroying our world? Beatriz at Dinner never entirely settles on a satisfying answer to this question. But the film does send us out of the theater asking it of ourselves, and maybe that is the answer.