Sundance 2024, blog 1

Where the Buzz Is

A Real Pain

Wilfred Okiche checks in from the Sundance Film Festival, where the market is already gearing up.

The 40th edition of the Sundance Film Festival kicked off Thursday, January 18 with buzzy opening night screenings in several venues across Park City, Utah, the festival’s long-term home.

But before the business of film exhibition, there is the matter of raising the funds. While guests were taking their pick of opening night attractions like How to Have Sex directed by Molly Manning Walker and Freaky Tales, the back-to-grassroots comeback of Captain Marvel duo Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden, patrons of a certain importance were shuttled 20 minutes away from Park City’s Main Street to a convention center in Kamas, Utah for the festival’s opening night gala and fundraising activities. The festival’s managing body, the Sundance Institute is able to continue delivering on their mandate of supporting independent filmmakers only through the generous support of patrons and well-wishers. $1.6 million was raised Thursday night.

Oppenheimer writer and director Christopher Nolan who scored early career success at Sundance with his second feature Memento was perhaps the biggest name being celebrated as he was honored with the Trailblazer award. Fun fact: Nolan’s microbudget debut, Following was notoriously turned down at Sundance but won the Tiger Competition at IFFR. Other award recipients Thursday night include Kristen Stewart, Past Lives’ Celine Song and The Eternal Memory’s Maite Alberdi.

With studio and streaming executives on ground hunting for acquisition titles, not much business seems to have been coming out of the market in the first few days. But in a welcome turn of events, the Jesse Eisenberg directed dramedy, A Real Pain became the festival’s first hot ticket as Searchlight put down a whooping $10 million for distribution rights following a reported bidding war.

Premiering in the U.S Dramatic Competition, A Real Pain stars Eisenberg and recent Emmy winner Keiran Culkin as David and Benji Kaplan, two cousins who travel to tour Poland from New York based on the wishes of their late beloved grandmother.

Don’t be misled by the title though. Even though the cousins join a holocaust tour and confront with their legacy as American Jews, A Real Pain is surprisingly light-hearted and quick witted. The opening scenes quickly establish the dynamism between the two lead characters and Eisenberg and Culkin are a match made in movie heaven. Their chemistry is incredibly organic and this more than anything, powers this road movie forward, giving life to even the most twee aspects of the story.

Eisenberg who in the previous Sundance title When You Finish Saving the World skewered the toxicities of do-good American liberals, has proven to be a sharp chronicler of modern anxieties. He is working in supposedly more personal territory in A Real Pain and is able to bridge the gap confidently -tastefully too- between sharp comedy and emotional catharsis.

Another hot ticket title that is hoping to do brisk business boasts the considerable talents of four-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Ladybird, Little Women) and German director Nora Fingscheidt.

The Outrun which plays in the Premieres section is somewhat of a return to form for Fingscheidt who went to Hollywood with the uneven 2021 Netflix drama The Unforgivable starring Sandra Bullock after debuting with her well received System Crasher. Adapted from the memoir by Scottish writer Amy Liptrot- who shares screenwriting credits- The Outrun is an immersive piece of drama that is anchored by a powerhouse performance by Ronan.

After hitting rock bottom partying hard in London, Ronan’s Rona, a once-promising Biology student repairs to the end of the world, the windswept islands off the Scottish north coast to combat her alcohol addiction. Part addiction drama, part family chronicle, part nature documentary, The Outrun is a confident but rugged character study that treats the addiction story at its heart with the frankness and sensitivity that the subject matter demands.

Fingscheidt complicates the journey a bit telling the story in a non-linear structure, as past and present collide, just like the rocky temperament of the Orkney Islands where the bulk of the story is set. The first act might be a bit turbulent but brace for impact as Fingscheidt, guided by the fearlessness of her leading lady unspools her inspired interpretation of a story that might be familiar otherwise.

In the World Cinema Dramatic Competition, Norwegian director Thea Hvistendahl makes a strong debut with Handling the Undead, an adaptation of the book by John Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In).

International audiences who come to Handling the Undead for the promise of the onscreen reunion of Renate Reinsve and Anders Danielsen Lie, both terrific in Joachim Trier’s The Worst Person in the World might be disappointed as the actors don’t share scenes together.

For this chilly arthouse spin on the zombie genre, Hvistendhal gathers an ensemble Oslo cast for a patient, and quiet study on grief and the depths people will go to preserve life with their loved ones. Hvistendhal’s sense of direction is solid, and she brings a reflective vision to this interpretation teasing out some existential questions, but the film is likely to test the patience of audiences who like their shocks faster and gorier.