This year’s Sundance, the 40th, has felt especially exceptional. Park City was dazzled with moviegoers from all over, huddled together for a shared cinematic experience. It felt great to be back.

In my first dive into this specific curation, I’ve got two feature debuts and a sophomore film from a talented actor. All three tie together in a unique familial bow, a connection balancing those specific relationships, as challenging as they sometimes may be.

A Real Pain (Jesse Eisenberg)

A Real Pain (2023)- source: Sundance Film Festival

In the artfully nuanced tapestry of performances by our lead actors, A Real Pain emerges as a delightful blend of hilarity and heart. Jesse Eisenberg, in his sophomore effort, demonstrates a refined skill in crafting a story steeped in vulnerability, delivering an experience that feels both earned and organic. The chemistry between Eisenberg and Kieran Culkin enhances their respective roles, marking some of the best performances in their careers.

Culkin, fresh from his successes in Succession, embodies a soulful yet enigmatic character in Benjy — seemingly out of sync but unapologetically marching to his unique rhythm. The narrative unfolds within the backdrop of an airport, encapsulating the entirety of the story in a journey, both physical and introspective, as the two lead characters embark on a trip to Poland with a Holocaust tour group led by Will Sharpe, and joined by Jennifer Gray, Kurt Egyiawan and others.

The cousin dynamic between David (Jesse Eisenberg) and Benjy (Kieran Culkin) is richly developed, revealing layers of emotion in subtle moments—a wide-eyed expression conveying envy, a smirk expressing admiration. The bond between these two men is tenderly explored, with David’s deadpan commentary juxtaposed against Benjy’s open-book nature. As the two spend more time together a bond is reformed, and a sense of camaraderie is built between them and the others.

In its quietest moments, A Real Pain is painted with relatable hues, its core remaining close to the filmmaker’s heart. The writing shines with sharp wit and swift humor, interwoven with moments of laughter that exude a warmth palpable through the screen. Amid the comedic elements, the film skillfully delves into the poignant contemplation of loss.

The choice to use the tour guide as a vehicle for introducing familial bonding is ingenious, heightened by the emotional resonance drawn from Eisenberg‘s real-life history. Filmed against the picturesque backdrop of Poland, the movie showcases various locations with finesse. The script is truly a gem, truthful to its identity without ever losing sight of its unique sensibilities. All elements of the film work symbiotically and ensure that this one will sit with you for a long time. 

A Real Pain is a heartfelt and comedic ode, utilizing the terrific cast and showcasing Eisenberg’s continuously impressive talent. A standout of Sundance, and an inspiring experience.

Thelma (Josh Margolin)

Thelma (2024)- source: Sundance Film Festival

Thelma, one of this year’s Sundance’s most feel-good flicks, is a clever and affectionate cinematic delight.

In our intro we meet 94-year-old Thelma Post (June Squibb), navigating the digital world with the patient guidance of her grandson Daniel (Fred Hechinger). Their heartwarming connection is evident as he helps her embrace the complexities of technology.

When she’s conned out of $10,000, believing Daniel is in trouble, she can’t let go of the fact that she was duped. She sets out, against her daughter (Parker Posey) and her husband’s (Clark Gregg) wishes, along with her friend (Richard Roundtree) to track down those responsible.

While the film leans more towards adventure than action and feels like a delightful jaunt rather than a high-stakes drama, some moments remind us of the risks involved in every step. June Squibb effortlessly commands the screen, portraying Thelma as the leading lady she truly deserves to be. Thelma embraces humor without being over-encumbered by heavy messages, creating a breezy and enjoyable experience without any scenes feeling awkward or forced.

Written and directed by Josh Margolin, Thelma resonates by skillfully balancing entertainment value with a sympathetic and rootable main character who truly shines. The script is playful when necessary yet poignant throughout. 

Despite any predictable plot directions, Thelma is resplendent in its ability to create genuine laughter while remaining sensitive and letting its characters have fun. June Squibb is a wonder- 94 and she’s as funny and charismatic as ever. A lovely endeavor from beginning to end: I dare you not to smile.

Good One (India Donaldson)

Good One (2024)- source: Sundance Film Festival

A wonderful debut, a tender portrayal, and an emotional look at girlhood, Good One is a small, intimate affair. 

The film follows Sam (Lily Collias) as she heads to the Catskills with her father (James LeGros) and his friend (Danny McCarthy) for the weekend.

Good One moves with fragility, pacing itself to feel nearly mundane at times; what a teenager would experience stuck between bickering older men. However, her initial watchful eyes become embers as something beneath the surface threatens to emerge. Good One excellently captures the disconnect that can occur between adults and teens, child and parent, father and daughter. 

All of the performances are great but Lily Collias exudes a sense of confidence, even as her character wrestles with being seen and heard, that was spectacular. 

The dialogue is realistic and the simplicity of the narrative is poetic in its own right. Some of the development and dynamics don’t quite reach its ambition, but what’s created is a patient film, a thoughtful induction with an assured direction. It’s beautifully shot and the sound design is great. It takes its time, which may test some viewers, but by its end, a moment of clarity makes it worth it. 

Good One has a measured constraint that feels familiar, delivering not on big moments, but the many small ones that stack up and, eventually, become too heavy to hold. India Donaldson writes and directs this debut with a keen eye and a talent for nudging the audience toward understanding. 

With a subtle sort of strength, Good One is a delicate but effective coming-of-age tale with a stellar, slowly simmering performance from Lily Collias

Stay tuned for more Sundance coverage!

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