People want to know about where they come from, especially if all they know about it comes from stories and relayed memories. In his second time directing, Jesse Eisenberg presents a look at the kind of trip that many descendants of Holocaust survivors make, traveling to a European country from which their families were deported by the Nazis. While firmly rooted in the present and the relationship between two cousins mourning their late grandmother, A Real Pain effectively captures the complicated intergenerational trauma that shapes the ways people engage with their own privileges and comfort that they themselves have not worked to earn.
On his way to the airport, David (Eisenberg) calls Benji (Kieran Culkin) to remind him to leave time for traffic and other delays. When he arrives, David is surprised to find that Benji has been there for hours, excited that the airport opens early since it gave him a chance to meet the “craziest people.” This is the dynamic that persists throughout their organized tour in Poland, with the gregarious Benji making friends left and right while David shyly urges Benji to behave more appropriately, like when he stages a group photo by statues of soldiers that David deems insensitive. While David clearly has social anxiety, Benji is also prone to outbursts, like when he can’t stand the idea of them being in first class on a train traveling the same tracks that led his relatives to a concentration camp, or when the tour guide, James (Will Sharpe), continues offering interesting facts and statistics while they’re visiting a cemetery.
David and Benji truly do capture the mixed emotions that American-born descendants of Holocaust survivors often express, with their interest most sparked by relationships with grandparents who would frequently tell them about how it was for them at their age. Eisenberg drew on his own family history for his script, which chooses conversation and debate over stark visual images, focusing on the impact of this trip and its sights on the cousins rather than actually showing much of what they see. It’s an interesting approach, particularly because everyone on the trip sees it a different way, including a genocide survivor from Rwanda who later converted to Judaism.
This is Eisenberg’s second time directing and his second time launching that project at Sundance, following 2022’s virtual debut of When You Finish Saving the World. This time, he appears in the film, though he saves the much showier role for Culkin. His performance is still resonant, particularly when he finally summons the energy to confront Benji about his overly cavalier attitude. Culkin, fresh off an awards sweep for the final season of Succession, distinguished this role from that theoretical career highlight by his twisting of Roman Roy’s manic energy into something friendly and positive. That it masks a deep insecurity shouldn’t come as a surprise, but Culkin unfurls the character beautifully.
As with Eisenberg’s first film, this story is laced with humor. Holocaust sites in Poland shouldn’t necessarily be the setting for jokes, but it reflects how people act when they’re uncomfortable and also a need to enjoy life. Sharpe delivers one of the film’s most potent reflections, “this will be a tour about pain but also one that celebrates the most resilient people,” as James reacts to the dynamic of the group and, in one memorable scene, coolly takes unsolicited feedback from an angry Benji. This is a film about memory that isn’t specific to its characters and should invite warm reactions from audiences, including Searchlight Pictures, which purchased the film for $10 million last week. Eisenberg has succeeded with a film that feels deeply personal and intimate yet carries a universal accessibility for all.
A Real Pain makes its world premiere in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and has been acquired by Searchlight Pictures.