This initial report on A Real Pain comes from our team following the premieres at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. We’ll update this piece when there’s more information about the movie’s release.
A Real Pain is a sweet dramedy about two cousins (Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin) who travel to Poland on a Holocaust tour to visit their grandmother’s house a few months after her death. Eisenberg wrote and directed — it’s his second directorial project, after 2022’s When You Finish Saving the World.
In the film, David sets off to Poland with his cousin Benji to connect with their roots by joining a Holocaust tour and visiting the onetime home of their recently deceased grandmother, who survived the camps and escaped Europe. The two cousins were close once, but it’s clear that time and circumstances have taken their lives down different paths.
David (Eisenberg) isn’t the nervous little kid he used to be, but he’s still reserved and a little quieter than Benji (Culkin). He lives in a beautiful apartment in New York with his wife and young child, and he makes a good living selling internet ads that keep free websites afloat, as he explains to Benji. (Polygon thanks you, David.)
Benji, meanwhile, is still basically the fun-loving, carefree kid he always was, maybe to a fault. When people first meet him, they love him in a heartbeat. He still lights up any room he walks into. And he still has a hair-trigger temper that even he doesn’t really understand.
As the two travel Poland with their tour group, they get a much better understanding of each other, their family, and the past that they’re still deeply connected to.
What is A Real Pain trying to do?
The movie’s comparatively low stakes mostly keep it grounded to a story of two disconnected cousins who both so clearly miss the friendship they had when they were kids, and want to get back to it. David can’t understand why Benji isn’t growing up in all the ways that David has. Benji can’t admit that he feels left behind. All this is set against the backdrop of an effective and delicately handled Holocaust tour that causes everyone in the tour group to react in different, profound, and difficult ways.
Does A Real Pain live up to its premise?
It does, thanks in large part to Eisenberg’s deft script and the fantastic performances. Culkin, in particular, is tremendous in his role. He’s simultaneously grating and infinitely charming, swapping between the two in the blink of an eye. It is, in every way, a continued version of Roman Roy, his Succession character, but with a whole lot more pathos and humanity behind his eyes.
Benji is sarcastic, witty, thoughtful, kind, and horribly selfish, often without realizing he’s anything at all. It’s exactly the kind of character that movies generally rely on other characters to define, the kind you learn more about from how people talk about him than what you actually see on screen. But in Culkin’s hands, and with Eisenberg’s script, Benji never needs anyone to speak for him.
Highlighting Culkin’s grace in his role isn’t meant to diminish Eisenberg’s performance. The movie almost entirely hinges on the central relationship, which wouldn’t work if there was even a hint of doubt that these two grew up together and loved each other. And there isn’t. They’re impressively and believably familial. Every part of their expressions, their glances, their insults, their hugs, their pain, and their understanding feels like it comes from deeply shared history and a childhood spent with each kid feeling like they were chasing the other.
Almost as impressive as how well it pulls off the family dynamic is how well it fits all of this around so many thoughtful, interesting reactions to their group’s Holocaust tour. The movie explores a variety of different kinds of grief and connection with the horrors of the past, but refuses to allow the Holocaust to be used as an emotional crutch for its main characters. It’s something steadfast and bigger than them that they can react against, but it’s never used in service of their comparatively small story.
The quote that says it all
There’s a moment at a dinner table where David, thinking back on the group’s tour of a concentration camp and talking about Benji when he’s in the bathroom, says, essentially, “How can the product of a thousand miracles turn out like him?” It’s a moment David’s clearly been building to for years, but it’s a testament to the movie’s grace that his observation doesn’t start a fight — it just provokes uncomfortable silence as he turns over the fact that he said it out loud.
Most memeable moment
In spite of all his vulnerability and pain, Kieran Culkin is still certainly in Roman Roy mode in his movie, and that means that all his little insults and glib comments are infinitely horrible and quotable. If you wanted to cut this movie into a post-Succession finale Roman fancam, it wouldn’t be tough.
Is A Real Pain good?
It’s great, if not particularly sweeping. A Real Pain isn’t a movie about real conclusions or grand statements, but one about deeply personal relationships and how pain and history can affect them. In that way, it’s powerful, as well as deeply funny and touching.
When can we see it?
Searchlight Pictures purchased the rights to the film shortly after its Sundance premiere, though the studio hasn’t announced a release date yet.