Starring Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, Leonora Pitts, Tobin Bell, Adam Chernick, Davie-Blue
Directed by J. Davis
Manson Family Vacation isn’t exactly the Duplass Brothers’ next horror-centric film after Baghead (Jay Duplass only stars) but it’s just morbid enough that it can find a place here. It’s also a story about community and how a lost soul can finally feel at home and be part of something bigger than the mediocre life trailing behind them, even if getting there happens to involve Charles Manson and the infamous murders of the late sixties. Director J. Davis has made a film about sick obsession and misdirected hero worship and managed to make it funny and even a little touching.
In an always at odds dynamic quite similar to Mark Duplass and Josh Leonard in Humpday, Jay Duplass and Linus Phillips play estranged brothers, Nick and Conrad, who are about as polar opposite as you can get. Nick (Duplass) is a married lawyer living the straight life and Conrad (Phillips) is a free spirited byproduct of slackerdom who rushes in like a tumbleweed to make things a little uncomfortable in Nick’s life before taking a job with an environmental startup. After convincing Nick to take the day off, Conrad takes him on a mapped out tour of the Manson murders, stopping at the LaBianca house and the Tate residence while wearing a Manson T-shirt. It’s fandom of the worse kind and it’s a twisted obsession that Conrad shows that could make fans of the subversive get behind his character who’s still searching for his place in the world.
As the two begin to bond the way you do when you’re on a mini-adventure with someone and it’s going well, things take a turn when they track down Tobin Bell, a man who Nick thinks is something akin to Conrad’s new boss. It turns out Bell’s name is Blackbird and, although it’s difficult to accept that Bell’s character is more hippie than psychopath, he seems loving enough and wants to take Conrad under his wing. Lets’ just say Conrad is … special. When Blackbird introduces Conrad to the rest of his flock, it becomes clear that there’s something else going on under the surface and both brothers seem to be in the midst of some kind of cult or counterculture resurgence.
The legacy of Manson is constantly felt throughout Family Vacation and his album “Lie” is also played in a couple of scenes making what would be a typical road trip sequence seem a little unseemly. As Nick starts to look at his brother in a different light as he finds out more about what’s going on, Charles Manson is also examined in a different way and isn’t at all demonized in the film. It’s a different side of the cultural coin where Manson is seen as liberator rather than a maniac.
Tobin Bell, Linus Phillips and Jay Duplass are all terrific together with Bell being quietly menacing while Phillips’ character begins to transform into something still likeable but almost threatening. The drama comes from both brothers trying to find a middle ground in the midst of a family crisis that would shake anyone to their foundation, let alone these characters who have a lot of painful backstory to process. Netflix has just picked up Manson Family Vacation here at SXSW so look for it relatively soon and be sure to put in your queue. Yes, even if it’s the only non-horror tite you have in your list.