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Sundance 2024 Review: A Real Pain – “It’s funny, it’s touching and most importantly, it feels authentic.”

Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg appear in A Real Pain by Jesse Eisenberg, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

What is pain exactly?  Not the physical kind, but the emotional.  How does it originate and accumulate inside ones self and how do we reconcile ourselves to its existence?  Sometimes what we carry with us started before we even existed.  Generational pain can lead to our own, or it can be the scale to which we measure our own emotional suffering.  Jesse Eisenberg wants to explore this in his second dramatic feature, A Real Pain.

Benji (Kieran Culkin) and David (Jesse Eisenberg) Kaplan are cousins traveling to Poland.  Their grandmother, who passed some months before, left them money to do a heritage tour.  It’s a chance for them to visit where their family originated, and also to recognize and acknowledge their Jewish ancestry and the trauma they went through during World War II.

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While the two men were very close together, they couldn’t be further apart personality-wise.  Benji looks a little disheveled, he’s an extrovert, a rebel, who loves people, extremely empathetic, his path in life is far from straight.  David is a family man with a wife and young son back in New York City, put together, a rule follower, employed, and more introverted.  As the two join their tour group, of course Benji quickly learns all their names, especially Marcia (Jennifer Grey), a woman whose recent divorce is still proving painful, and Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan) a Rwandan refugee who escaped his own genocide and found a sense of belonging and solace in Judaism.  Benji deeply feels for these new friends.  David feels the need to apologize for his cousin’s outbursts of feeling.

However, as this odd-couple continues their travels, the two start to feel their own pain more deeply.  Benji wears his on his sleeve.  He breaks down when he realizes they’re traveling first class since their ancestors would have been shoved into crowded train cars, and he has words with the tour operator (Will Sharpe) when he is making things too clinical and not connecting them to the Polish people.  However, David keeps his cards close to his chest.  He considers his pain ‘unexceptional’ compared to what his relatives went through, and he works hard to control and suppress the ‘trivial’ matters that bring him sadness.  As they examine and mend their own relationship and expectations of one another, how will they reconcile their modern pain from the historical?

Director and star, Jesse Eisenberg rooted the narrative in his own family history.  Even the home of the fictional grandmother they visit in the film was his family’s before they were removed from it in 1939.  As such, Eisenberg’s film has that personal touch, a respectful gaze that can take the film from comedic to somber and back again.  The tone is perfect, accompanied by tender, lyrical piano music from 19th-century Polish composer Frederic Chopin.  However, the director also recognizes the importance of silence, notably when the tour stops at the Majdanek Concentration Camp, and the film asks for us to truly acknowledge and remember the deep and tragic suffering of the Holocaust.

While Eisenberg’s performance is very… well, Eisenberg, Kieran Culkin is given a true challenge.  His character must be charming and affable even in his loudest, sometimes cringe-worthy moments.  From morose to sometimes manic, the audience always empathizes with him.  It’s a memorable performance that allows Culkin the freedom to fully show his range, and may be his best work to date (which is saying something considering his run on HBO’s Succession).

A Real Pain asks the audience to consider some complex questions, but all under the guise of a ‘road trip’ movie.  It’s funny, it’s touching and most importantly, because of Eisenberg’s personally vulnerable writing and directing, it feels authentic.  All of our pain is real, Eisenberg acknowledges that, but what he also demonstrates is the profundity of perspective, and that can only bring us all closer together.

A Real Pain had its premiere January 20th, 2024 at the Sundance Film Festival.  It’s remaining screening (as well as online viewing) is sold out.  For more film information head to

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