Sundance: A Real Pain – Struggling for relationship

“This will be a tour about pain…, also a tour that celebrates the people.”

It’s hard to categorize A Real Pain, written and directed by Jesse Eisenberg. Its foundation is an odd couple road movie but, for all the humor that grows out of that, I can’t quite call it a comedy. It is a story of family history tied to the Holocaust but, as dark at that is, I can’t quite call it a tragedy. It is a story of hope, but also of despair. It is a story of connection, and also of solitude. At Sundance, Eisenberg received the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for this film.

David (Eisenberg) and Benji Kaplan (an amazing Kieran Culkin) are cousins who were born just days apart. They were close as children, but have gone to different lives as adults. They are reuniting for a trip to Poland to see where their grandmother came from. They will be joining a small Holocaust remembrance tour group.

David and Benji are near polar opposites. David is quiet and cautious, with a good dose of anxiety. Benji can be quite hyper, but he is also extremely mercurial—shifting moods so rapidly we might think him bipolar. Benji can be charming one minute and utterly abhorrent the next. David spends a lot of time trying to mitigate Benji’s behavior with the group. David has pleasant life with a good job, wife, and child. Benji lives in his parents’ basement. We will slowly learn more of their relationship and lives as the tour progresses.

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.

The tour group is diverse, including a British guide, a well-off retired couple, a recently divorced woman, and a Rwandan convert to Judaism who feels tied to the Jewish genocide. They visit the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, and eventually a death camp. The tour of the death camp is done with great solemnity and respect. It doesn’t try to make us feel anything, rather it allows us to find our own emotional response.

At one point on the tour, when Benji has a strong response to what the group is doing, he tells them, “Everyone can’t walk around the world feeling happy all the time.” We will learn that this is an apt description of Benji’s life. His journey through the world is filled with sorrow and pain. But the cousins also remember their grandmother recounting that she survived because of hundreds of miracles. In that sense, the lives of the cousins can be seen as miraculous from the beginning.

Eisenberg shows his interest in Poland not only by the locations he takes us to in the film but with the use of several Chopin piano pieces that serve as the soundtrack for the film. It is also of note that his location people were able to find the actual apartment that his grandmother lived in before being taken away. When the cousins go to see their grandmother’s home, it actually is Eisenberg’s grandmother’s one-time home.

Like the tour leader’s introduction to the Holocaust tour, this film is about pain but it also celebrates the people involved. In a stereotypical film like this, the two cousins would find a connection that would bring healing to the pains and struggles they live with. But we find it hard to think that their relationship will continue to develop. Especially with the ending scene in which after David has returned to his apartment, Benji opts to hang out at the airport. He says it’s because he meets so many interesting people there. But we see him sitting near the gates, surrounded by people—people who are going places. But there he sits, alone in the crowd, going nowhere.

Leave a Reply