Eisenberg’s rich script for “A Real Pain,” which just won the jury award at Sundance for writing, is the kind of nuanced character study that I could talk about for hours, but the main draw of this film is going to be the phenomenal performance from Kieran Culkin. The recent Emmy winner from “Succession” proves that he is going to be a major force for years to come, giving an acting turn that I’m going to be annoying about during the next awards season. It’s that raw, organic, and subtle—one of the best pieces of acting I’ve seen in my decade-plus of covering Sundance.
Who is Benji? He’s the kind of guy who gets to the airport many hours early, not because he’s nervous about making his flight, but because he wants to meet people, and he’s lonely on his couch at home. Most of us have that kind of friend, the person who already knows the name of everyone in the bar while you’re parking the car. Benji is a people person through and through, someone who seems honestly invested in everyone he meets. He’s also deeply, deeply sad. You can see it in Culkin’s eyes as Benji embarks on a journey with his cousin David (Eisenberg, doing his best film work in years) to join a tour group in Poland, visiting a concentration camp and splitting off to see the home in which their grandmother was raised (the actual home in the film belonged to Eisenberg’s grandma.) Benji was very close to his grandma, and she recently passed, turning the trip into an act of potential closure.
Culkin takes what could have been a very showy part—the manic traveling companion has been done before—and imbues it with a sense of truth, something that emerges from emotions he can’t control. And while this buddy duo feels a bit simple on paper—Benji is too reckless while David is too conservative—the two performers find such a believable chemistry as something akin to brothers. They are two people who want to understand, and possibly even be more like one another, and they have to go all the way back to where their grandmother called home to figure out the limitations of both. Without spoiling, they don’t find some sort of pat Hollywood resolution that makes them closer, but they do walk away with a greater understanding of not each other but themselves.