Manson Family Vacation (2015) Film Review: Ghosts from the Past

From emerging indie film director J. Davis, comes Manson Family Vacation, a mumblecore film of sorts starring Jay Duplass, and Linas Philips. They play middle aged brothers Nick and Conrad, reunited after years apart.

Nick is a partner at a successful law firm, he’s married and he has a young son. He’s a success, and he slots into society easily with his well kept figure, and his culturally approved lifestyle choices. Conrad is more of an outcast, he has long hair, a scruffy beard, and he’s an out of work/failed artist.

The brothers are opposing figures, and their lives couldn’t be more different. After their dad passes away (Conrad misses the funeral), Conrad visits his brother. His arrival’s announced via a note at the law firm where Nick works: Pat McGroin called.

Conrad and Nick getting high in Manson Family Vacation.
Conrad and Nick getting high in Manson Family Vacation.

Conrad is introduced as a man who doesn’t fit into the ‘right’ mold, and he’s frequently immature. It transpires that he’s developed something of a fixation on infamous killer Charles Manson, and his visit to LA isn’t quite as spontaneous as it seems. He wants to take Nick on a tour of Manson’s murder landmarks.

Helter Skelter Tour

After some fuss, Nick being uptight etc, the duo travel around the city taking in the ‘sights.’ Nick brings along a camera, hoping that the medium might prompt an artistic response from Conrad, someone who Nick feels needs some direction. Nick approaches this setup with an idea that he can change Conrad for the better, but in the process it becomes clear that Nick hasn’t always been a kind or caring brother.

Conrad feels like the black sheep of the family, and he attributes his failures to his relationship with his dad. There’s a lot of retrospective gazing in this film, as the two brothers tentatively discuss who they’ve become, and the moments that shaped them. It’s a film that relies on strong chemistry between its leads and both Duplass and Philips surpass expectations.

There’s plenty of nuance and subtext to their interactions, and it’s touching to see Conrad step out from his younger brother’s shadow. Their father’s death is a catalyst for both of them, and it provides them with scope to assess who they are without parental influences. For Nick, he thinks he has it all sussed out, but Conrad isn’t quite so sure about himself.

Californian Desert Truths

Their Manson quest takes them far out into the desert where they encounter a friend of Manson’s, played by Tobin Bell. It seems that the events that transpired were orchestrated by Conrad, and Nick begins to realise that his brother doesn’t need his help. There’s an excellent subtext at play throughout the film, as people vie for control and influence over each other.

Nick’s wife is frequently depicted as controlling, Nick isn’t especially kind to his young son, and Nick attempts to exert influence over Conrad. But Conrad doesn’t accept this, and a power struggle of sorts ensues. When the two brothers aren’t fighting however they share some happier experiences, and there’s a touching scene where they play pool, alongside some sweet moments where they work together to get the information they need to continue their quest.

But this isn’t a standard buddy comedy, and it’s much closer to the early Duplass Brothers film Puffy Chair than it is to a Hollywood road trip comedy. That said, it’s not an especially easy film to define, and it never explores its potential for horror tropes and scares, bar Conrad’s arrival at Nick’s home.

Conrad bonding with Nick's son.
Conrad bonding with Nick’s son.

The opening font used on the titles is accompanied by a harmonica soundtrack which is in keeping with TV shows from the Manson period like The Waltons. And there’s certainly a religious aspect of sorts, as Conrad carts around Helter Skelter like it’s a Bible. It seems that Conrad’s feelings of loss have pushed him to find a peace of sorts with the ideas sold by Manson and the free love era of the 1960s.

Family Drama

Rather than a spoof horror film, or even a dark comedy, this is a touching family drama with nods to movies like Around the Bend, and Little Miss Sunshine. The ending certainly isn’t expected, and the journey there isn’t prescribed either.

Manson Family Vacation is an emotive drama, that reveals the complexities of its characters through well crafted dialogue, and smart scene direction. There are moments of real poignancy, muddled up with the messiness that comes from sibling hood.

It’s subtle, it’s unexpected, and Philips and Duplass lend a certain realism to a film that’s supposed to be about Manson, but isn’t really. The things that drew folk to join Manson’s cult, concepts like family, connection, and love, are things missing in Conrad’s and Nick’s relationship, but their road trip just might bring them closer together, if they can leave the past behind them.

Funded via Kickstarter, and bought by Netflix at SXSW, Manson Family Vacation is another indie gem from the Duplass Brothers.

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