Some films have catchy titles going for them and not much else. Fortunately, in the case of the brilliantly titled “Manson Family Vacation,” there’s much more going on than just tossed off allusions to the ‘60s psychopath. In fact, Charles Manson permeates the entire fabric of this film, which is a surprising gem of a brotherly love charmer that explores the real meanings of “family.” Just with, you know, notorious imprisoned cult leaders to guide the way.
Nick (Jay Duplass) is a successful L.A. lawyer with a house in Beechwood Canyon, a supportive wife, and a quirky kid with a dark streak. His brother, Conrad (Linas Phillips), is the opposite: he has literally nothing and he’s just hitchhiked to his brother’s house en route to his new gig at an environmental non-profit in the desert (this movie and this review are scattered with Easter eggs for Manson aficionados out there, as I am). Nick’s worried about his deadbeat bro, but Conrad’s just psyched to do some sightseeing — to all of the Manson murder sites around the city, such as Cielo Drive, El Coyote restaurant where Sharon Tate had her last meal, and the LaBianca house.
Nick is initially resistant and disgusted by the trip, but he comes around soon enough, drawn into his brother’s energy and enthusiasm. It’s clear that he needs some wacky in his straight-laced life. Even though he disapproves of Conrad’s morbid predilections, he appreciates the element of surprise that he brings to his life. There is tension however, as the brothers are clearly still rocked by the recent death of their father. Conrad is the adopted older brother, and he struggles with his grief (or lack thereof) because of the strained relationship he had with his father and his brother, the biological son.
The brothers find time to bond on a quick road trip to the desert to get Conrad to his new gig. There are bumps and obstacles along the way, but it all falls into place for Conrad to meet his new “family.” As Conrad is drawn into the group, Nick feels the distance between them grow, something that doesn’t quite sit right with him. With the gulf between them, Nick realizes how much he actually needs Conrad.
“Manson Family Vacation” is much sweeter than the title suggests, though that is exactly what the trip ends up being. The Manson family backdrop offers context for exploring what it means to be family, with those you choose, the ones you don’t, and the ones chosen for you. Jay Duplass continues to stretch his wings and demonstrate his acting acumen in a performance that shows more of what he is capable of, as the uptight but loyal Nick. Linas Phillips is a fine counterpart as the wild Conrad, and the two have great chemistry.
There are a few story moments that feel just a bit too facile; transitions that happen a bit too fast, particularly with Nick’s character coming around to Conrad’s antics so quickly that it feels like it skipped an emotional step. But aside from a few wonky story moments and transitions, the film is confidently directed by writer/director J. Davis, photographed with a clear crispness, capturing the beauty of the desert. The soundtrack and score (by Heather McIntosh) are aces, even with the Manson tunes dropped in, and the plucking guitar that underscores a few scenes manages to evoke that ‘60s folky style without aping it. Unexpected and charming, “Manson Family Vacation” is one ride you’ll want to catch. [B+]