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A Real Pain Review: The Good & Ugly of Family Relationships

Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg look up in the film A Real Pain

Jesse Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin are magnificent in A Real Pain, the Sundance award winner for screenwriting.

A Real Pain shows audiences what adult familial relationships can look like, the good and the ugly. This film follows cousins David (Jesse Eisenberg) and Benji (Kieran Culkin, Succession) after their grandmother passes away. They decide to take a trip to Poland together to experience some of their family history in honor of her. David and Benji have not seen each other in some time, and during this trip, some of their old tensions resurface. 

One of the main themes of A Real Pain is the distancing of family. David and Benji were very close growing up. The film mentions that they used to hang out often as teenagers, but at this stage in their life they barely see each other. David has a family of his own now, and that’s his main priority, while Benji is still single and his closest relative was his grandmother. Growing apart from your family, especially extended family, is something that’s almost inevitable when you grow up and build a life for yourself. 

This exploration is t one of the most resonant aspects of the film, even if a lot of it isn’t directly in the screenplay. As someone who has moved away from half of my extended family, I’ve noticed that I’m in their lives a lot less not just physically, but also emotionally. While this is a little upsetting, it’s something that everyone goes through, but I haven’t seen a film that tackles these emotions the way A Real Pain does. The leading tension between David and Benji stems from this which becomes increasingly obvious as the film goes on and we learn more about their home lives. 

While these characters are navigating this familial distance, they are also encountering generational trauma as they make their way through Poland. There is one scene in particular, which occurs on a train, that is one of the most powerful scenes in the film. Navigating all these emotions allows both leads Eisenberg and Culkin to give different, yet compassionate performances. Eisenberg has played quiet socially awkward performances like this before, but I haven’t seen him this emotionally vulnerable in years. 

Kieran Culkin and Jesse Eisenberg look up in the film A Real Pain
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.

Most audiences know Kieran Culkin from his Emmy winning performance in Succession, but this is a totally different side of the actor. Benji has such a big personality; he is incredibly empathetic, outspoken, and sensitive. He’s a character that I could’ve watched for hours, which is a testimony to how great both Culkin’s performance is, but also Eisenberg’s writing. You grow to care so much about both these characters in such a short amount of time, to the point that when their trip is over, you’re begging for them to stay together for just a few more scenes. 

Since the writing and performances are so strong, I came away from A Real Pain wanting a little more. This story is very emotional, and if we had maybe twenty more minutes with these characters, I would’ve become more involved with their journeys and liked the film more, as a whole. However, what we get in these 90 minutes is still quite brilliant, especially given this is Eisenberg’s second feature as a director. 

The last theme that is explored perhaps best out of everything is the idea of sharing pain. David says in the middle of the film, “My pain is unexceptional so there’s no need to burden others with it.” This line not only broke my heart, but also is the most relatable piece of writing I’ve heard in a while. No matter who you are, you are experiencing some type of pain, physical or mental. 

Because of this fact, you have to be selective when you share what you’re going through. For me, I choose to not disclose out of fear of inconveniencing others, like David, but others have endless other reasons for doing so. Not disclosing pain can sometimes have disastrous effects, especially with mental health is involved, so I really appreciated the light A Real Pain shines on this subject. 

Overall, A Real Pain is not without its flaws, but is an insightful film on grief, pain, and family nonetheless. Jesse Eisenberg shines as a writer here, but it’s Kieran Culkin who steals the show with one of the most lived in and realistic performances I’ve seen in a while. This film will forever be a highlight in both of their careers, and truly shows that this is just the beginning. 

A Real Pain premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January, 2024. Read our list of 20 films to watch at Sundance 2024 and take a look at all our Sundance reviews!

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