Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg in Sundance Film Festval's A Real Pain | Agents of Fandom

Sundance 2024: Jesse Eisenberg’s & Kieran Culkin’s ‘A Real Pain’ Is A Real Joy

Jesse Eisenberg’s sophomore flick sees Kieran Culkin shine as it addresses deep life questions with a joyous overtone.

Jesse Eisenberg‘s sophomore outing, A Real Pain, is a razor-sharp, witty, and deeply meaningful buddy-dramedy about two Jewish cousins traversing through Poland in reverence of their recently deceased grandmother. Eisenberg, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film as David, now finds his name among the Sundance Film Festival greats after making leaps and bounds both in front of and behind the camera since his last Sundance premiere When You Finish Saving The World just a short two years ago.

The title of the film is self-referential enough — David’s cousin Benji, played by the astonishing Kieran Culkin in his post-Succession stardom, is an awkward, antagonistic egotist whose company is as exasperating as it is uncomfortable. Yet the title extends further than that as both David and Benji confront the pains of life, both trivial and significant, and ask themselves if they have ever experienced real pain.

‘A Real Pain’ Explores Just What Pain Means

Over a brisk and buoyant 90 minutes, both Eisenberg and Culkin find a brotherly bond, with Culkin playing his exalted quirky mannerisms and expeditious comic relief against Eisenberg and his tenaciously tolerant and well-balanced personality. As the two adventure further across Poland with their tour group, many times darting across the hotel lobby to atone for their unpunctual nature, the real pain starts to show in that of a family history steeped in a world of shared trauma from World War II.

Upon retracing the ancestral Jewish footsteps of their grandmother — the quite literal footsteps and locations of Eisenberg’s real grandmother — and visiting war memorials, gravesites, and eventually a concentration camp, they ask themselves how they have any right to complain about the mediocrities of everyday life. Culkin’s instantaneous ability to bring tearjerking, heartfelt emotion to the surface of his character is a near superhuman ability that works wonders within Eisenberg’s centered script concerning this exceptionally imperative theme.

Eisenberg and Culkin delight as cousins who often enjoy smoking weed together on the roof of the nearest hotel, and begin to break new ground as they unveil their pains of past memories and actions with one another — adding an increased depth to the authenticity of the characters. A Real Pain‘s comedy hybridized with the poignancy and existential-facing core idea of the film makes for a grounded yet powerful moving picture. The stunning and sumptuous nature of Polish cities and countryside, a gleeful piano-led score, and the energy that both Culkin and Eisenberg bring to the screen compress together to make a diamond in this year’s Sundance lineup.

With its big screen debut hopefully in the near future — Searchlight quickly acquired this project for $10 million before the festival was even over — A Real Pain pokes and prods at the idea of who in the world is experiencing real pain. With the not-so-simple answer explored, the film manages to feel joyous, swift, and potent all at the same time.

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'A Real Pain' Sundance Film Festival 2024 Review

'A Real Pain' Sundance Film Festival 2024 Review
3.5 5 0 1
3.5 rating
Total Score

The Good

  • Centered, focused script allows for natural humor and thematic potency.
  • Kieran Culkin is allowed to be the best version of his weird little self.

The Bad

  • A swift 90-minute runtime make the third act feel overly expeditious.
  • Thematic ideas are pursued yet feel oddly surface level in some sequences.
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