There’s something humble about Jesse Eisenberg writing, directing, and co-starring in a film, only to give its plum role to Kieran Culkin. Eisenberg, still, writes himself arguably the best scene in this picture; maybe the jury’s still out on the humble thing. David (Eisenberg) and Benji (Culkin) meet at the airport ahead of a trip to Poland. Their grandmother has recently passed and set some money aside for the two young men to take a tour of the motherland––captured, courtesy DP Michal Dymek, in visually and emotionally arresting images.

They’re a bit of an odd couple. Despite being extremely close childhood friends, life got in the way. David’s a digital-ad salesman with a family in New York City. Benji is something of a transient who plants his flag in upstate Binghamton but has no real direction to speak of. When Benji mails himself weed to the hotel in Poland, neurotic David can barely make sense of the rationale. The tour consists of British guide James (Will Sharpe, endearing), divorcee Marcia (Jennifer Grey, winning), an older Jewish couple (Liza Sadovy and Daniel Oreskes), and Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan), an African-born tourist who has converted to Judaism.

It’s a steadfast group dynamic thrown into chaos by the presence of Benji, whose up-and-down energy often demands more than the collective is willing to give. Culkin is asked to perform a high-wire act with the Benji character; one might recall Bill Murray’s nimble work in What About Bob? To play a burden, a burst of life, and an unknowable agent of tumult at once is no easy feat. Culkin’s success renders Benji a real, living organism. We all know or have known a Benji––time spent with them is both too much and too little. Some moments are ruined by his frankness. Other moments are made essential in the lives of these strangers. That Culkin has both the charm and bite to carry it is superb, and there’s a bravery to the open-endedness Eisenberg permits. It’s clearly a personal endeavor and clear point of growth as a filmmaker.

Through this lead duo we observe and confront identity in the context of generational culture. What does it mean that you are “Polish”? Or “Italian”? What is one to do with that information? What exactly does it inform in your very American life? In an extended scene, the tour visits a concentration camp. It’s tragic and heartfelt and mostly silent. Is simply acknowledging the horrors of the past enough? That A Real Pain doesn’t quite have an answer to the identity question is among the more honest things I’ve seen at this festival. That Benji––this film’s most complicated character––seems to encompass that uncertainty makes it all the more poignant. And a little bit painful.

A Real Pain premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival and will be released by Searchlight Pictures.

Grade: B+

No more articles