Notwithstanding the title’s many meanings, A Real Pain is very much an ode to the resilience of Holocaust survivors, refracted through the relationship between two Jewish cousins.
This review is part of our critics' round-up of six of the best titles at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.
THERE IS A SCENE in A Real Pain where cousins David (Jesse Eisenberg) and Benji (Kieran Culkin) are travelling on a train through modern-day Poland — and Benji erupts into a sudden outburst. The cousins, both Jewish, have come to Poland for a heritage tour in honour of their late grandmother, a Holocaust survivor; but the fact that their Jewish tour group is riding in an air-conditioned first-class carriage when not so long ago their ancestors would have been packed into cattle cars to be shipped off to death camps, doesn’t sit right with Benji. As the cushion of historical distance between the painful past and the privileged present collapses, inner conflict gets the better of Benji, who chews the group out for not recognising the ironies of their un-persecuted lives.
Moments later, the two cousins miss their stop and sneak onto another train without a ticket, only to find out they are again riding in first class. “We fucking earned it,” says Benji. “They owe us.”
This radical contrast in Benji’s responses captures the dissonance that descendants of genocide survivors often wrestle with. For those not on the inside of a tragedy, inherited trauma can manifest as guilt. Throughout the trip, he protests against treating the Holocaust like a drive-by event. But he is himself a man caught in two minds. On the very first day, he persuades the tour group into striking silly poses next to a sculpture of the Polish resistance. Later, at a Jewish cemetery, he criticises the tour guide for dealing in anonymous facts instead of personal stories. Between visiting memorials and cemeteries and concentration camps, the cousins squabble, dodge train conductors, smoke weed on the rooftop of the Radisson, and mourn the loss of their bubbe — a precarious tonal balance managed with aplomb by the two leads and matched by the hauntingly beautiful melodies of Chopin.
Drawing from his own return-to-roots trip to Poland, Eisenberg zooms in on the manifold pains of carrying trauma — when not experienced first-hand, but inherited. At the same time, he zooms out to the complexities that come with survivor memory becoming cultural memory. Does Holocaust tourism commodify suffering as spectacle? Are we mere tourists to others’ pain? Can reconnecting with our roots can help us understand the origin of our demons? Even if the degree of suffering or the nature of the struggle may be different, can one person’s pain be deemed any less or any more real than another’s?
For those who may not have worked it out, the title of Eisenberg’s second feature has a sly triple meaning. First, it describes Culkin’s Benji, an outspoken motormouth with a big personality, a real pain in the ass. As Eisenberg’s tightly wound David confesses at one point: “I hate him and I love him, I want to kill him, and I want to be him.” Second, the title signals what Culkin’s doleful eyes, no-filter talk and awkward vulnerability make emphatic: that Benji is a man in real pain, over growing apart from David, over losing his beloved bubbe, over fear of not living up to his potential. Third, it speaks to the pain of the Holocaust victims and survivors, passed down through the generations.
Notwithstanding the title’s many meanings, A Real Pain is as much an ode to the resilience of Holocaust survivors, refracted through the relationship between two Jewish cousins. The relationship is a testy one. Born three weeks apart, David and Benji were practically raised as brothers until drifting apart as teens. Now, their lives couldn’t be any different. David is a digital ads salesman with a wife and daughter waiting for him at home; Benji is a pot-smoking bachelor with manic depression. David is the kind of straitlaced worrier who likes to plan and prepare for every eventuality; Benji is the kind of sensitive extrovert who cannot bear to be by himself.
When we first meet the cousins, an anxious David is making phone calls and leaving messages in fear that Benji might be running late to their flight to Poland. Only, Benji is already at the airport, sitting quietly, having arrived hours earlier, just so he can be around people. He will befriend the airport security officer just as easily as he would a divorced mom dealing with an empty nest. He will snap at a tour group about their privilege just as readily as he will slander the rich. When he declares, “Money is like heroin for boring people,” one imagines Roman Roy disagreeing with the required amount of profanity.
Old tensions between the two cousins resurface over the course of a dinner. Half-angry with envy, half-exhausted with concern, David has an outburst of his own directed at Benji. But all it takes is a tour of a concentration camp to put their resentments into perspective and get their priorities straight. The energy Eisenberg and Culkin give and take from each other supplies the film with a generous heart and humour. Both play to their strengths as performers, while also creating room to explore a deeper pain and understanding.
On their heritage tour, David and Benji are joined by recent divorcee Marcia (Jennifer Grey), Rwandan convert Eloge (Kurt Egyiawan), and older couple Mark and Diane (Daniel Orekses and Liza Sadovy) — a group led by the receptive guide James (Will Sharpe), an Englishman eager to take them on an informed journey through a dark chapter in history, while also painting a picture of a vibrant Jewish community that existed in Poland before the Holocaust. The long shadow of the tragedy doesn’t prevent Eisenberg from treating the small joys of the group’s connection with equal humanity.
When David calls his pain “unexceptional” and not worth “burdening others with,” we realise how so many of us internalise the idea of our pain not being real because we have not suffered or struggled enough to be qualified to speak about it. We all carry our own pains, our own burdens, our own demons. The source may not be the same; the degree may not be either; but that doesn’t invalidate the pain. All the same, one person’s pain cannot be used as an excuse to ignore or erase another’s — something Israel would do well to remember as it ushers more and more pain into Palestine.
A Real Pain had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2024 as part of its US Dramatic Competition section.