Studio: The Orchard
Director: J. Davis
Writer: J. Davis
Producer: Steve Bannatyne, Eric Blyler, J.M. Logan, Josh Polon, Matt Ratner, Ali Sandler
Stars: Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, Leonora Pitts, Adam Chernick, Davie-Blue, Tobin Bell
A family man struggles to bond with his estranged brother, who has a strange fascination with Charles Manson.
Heavier on character connection drama than on anything else, “Manson Family Vacation” might mislead many into thinking it is something it is not. Even with short outings on Cielo Drive, longer road trips to Death Valley, photos from Vincent Bugliosi’s seminal book, and interview footage featuring Charlie himself, the movie’s core has little to do with the Manson Family. That theme could be virtually anything, as its actual function is to frame the focus on different ways people deal with family dysfunction and disapproval.
“Manson Family Vacation” is a dramedy about a straight-laced lawyer learning to understand his misfit brother through the latter’s freakish fascination for all things Manson. As estranged siblings struggling to reconnect while reconciling divergent lifestyles, Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips have an honesty in their chemistry that makes these men come across as completely genuine. Phillips’ disheveled Conrad is a less dimwitted “Our Idiot Brother,” oozing a comparable brand of lovable social clumsiness. Duplass gives brother Nick no more stiff-collared yuppiness than necessary, maintaining a straight yang to Phillips’ erratic yin that keeps both personalities even-keeled.
Tobin Bell is equally endearing and enigmatic as Blackbird, a moderately mysterious Manson acolyte aiding Conrad in his search for identity. Indeed the entire ensemble reads as entirely natural, playing parts with comfortable casualness while retaining confident composure.
Writer/director J. Davis fully embraces his film’s experimental indie aesthetic, a hallmark of any Duplass Brothers production. At least some of the dialogue and staging appears improvised, clues being a credit tagging co-star Linas Phillips for “Additional Writing” and more than one scene featuring laughing fits seemingly on the brink of becoming character breaks. Then again, acting is so organically unforced that it wouldn’t be surprising to discover everything was previously on paper, either.
There’s a scene early in the movie where the current homeowner is conned into allowing both bickering brothers inside the infamous LaBianca house. Once their ruse is exposed, the woman chastises the duo with, “I don’t understand you. A horrible thing happened here. And you want to celebrate that. Haven’t you ever lost anyone?”
My birthday in 2015 was spent cruising California on a weeklong trip centered in San Francisco. Having harbored a peculiar fascination of my own for the unsolved mysteries of the Zodiac Killer, a quick detour was made to the intersection of Washington and Cherry in Presidio Heights, the street corner where cab driver Paul Stine was murdered in 1969.
Likely nonplussed as to why we were slotting a serial killer site in between stops at the “Full House” house and Lucasfilm’s Yoda fountain, yet patiently placating me anyway, my girlfriend inquired as I took snapshots with her camera, “did you want to be in one of the pictures?” “God no,” I thought, saying only the second word aloud. Posing at a former crime scene like it is a formal tourist attraction seemed heinously arrogant.
So why pay any visit at all?
Something misunderstood is that pilgrimages to points of horrible history are not normally intended to commemorate a murderer the way making pen pals with a death row inmate or aspiring to own a John Wayne Gacy painting are. It’s not about connecting to a killer. It’s about connecting to a moment in time made tangible through a place.
There’s a reason why an X marks the spot in Dallas where Oswald’s gunfire struck JFK, or why signage in Deadwood points to the place where Wild Bill Hickok took a bullet to his back. That reason is because as a species instinctually fearful of mortality, morbidity is fascinating. Curious minds desire to comprehend what is incomprehensible. Whether consciously realized or not, humans are eternally engaged in perpetual struggles to understand, to connect, to achieve a sense of commonality and belonging, even, maybe especially, through tragedy. This is what “Manson Family Vacation” recognizes, and what it is essentially about, too.
“Manson Family Vacation” may not dig quite as conceptually deep as all that. The movie is more entertainingly charming than it is metaphorically philosophical. It’s just important to stress that the film’s interest is in exploring the second word of its title, not the first.
Review Score: 70