Nick (Jay Duplass, The Mindy Project) and Conrad (Linas Phillips Eastbound and Down) are two brothers whose lives have taken two very different turns. Nick is a successful lawyer and family whereas Conrad is a slacker bachelor. Shortly after the death of their father, Conrad comes back into Nick’s life while on the way to take a new job with an environmentalist group. As the black sheep of the family, Conrad was always prone to strange obsessions and interests like Faces of Death and heavy metal. His new obsession is Charles Manson, and Conrad wants to take a trip around the area to visit the landmarks of the infamous murders. Manson Family Vacation could easily delve into a cliche exploitation movie; instead it’s a comedy/drama about reconciliation that I found to be strangely affecting.
There are slight spoilers past this point.
What I liked about this film is how it uses the real life details of Charles Manson and his impact in the modern age as the framework for this story. As it turns out, the “environmentalist group” that Conrad is going to “work” for is part of the ATWA movement. They are never called that by name (probably for legal/personal safety reasons). The great Tobin Bell (Jigsaw from Saw) plays as Blackbird, an expy of the real life Manson devotee Graywolf. In real life Graywolf is one of Charles’s main contacts with the outside world and the ATWA movement and who helped arrange the meeting between Charles and former fiancee Star. A Star expy, named Sunshine (Davie-Blue) is also in this film as well. I feel embarrassed that I know all this off hand and feel I should explain that a lot of this information I acquired while reading the interesting biography Charles Manson Now a few years ago.
Manson Family Vacation could have portrayed these people and Conrad as jokes or villains; instead the story focuses on the reasons why Manson’s influence over the abandoned and disaffected is still just as powerful as it was in the 60’s. Jay Duplass does a great job of selling his character’s trepidation about these people, fear of losing his brother to them, and anger towards Conrad for not being honest about his connection to Charles Manson. Buried under all that is Nick’s resentment towards himself for actions that pushed Conrad toward these people. Despite their differences the two are brothers, and the film ended on a note that made me tear up a bit.
When I saw the title Manson Family Vacation while browsing through Netflix, I instantly expected a blood bath, not a surprisingly touching comedy drama. This subversion of expectations is really what makes the film work. If there is one fault I can really find with this film is that there is a pivotal scene near the end where Nick has a breakdown, but his wife’s (Leonora Pitts) breasts became the focal point for the heroic cameraman. Overall, writer-director J. Davis really did a great job with Manson Family Vacation and this is my favorite film year.
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