Nick (Jay Duplass) has made a great living for himself and his family and lives a fairly normal life. He loves his wife (Leonora Pitts) and son (Adam Chernick) and has a job that pays well enough to sustain a happy life. When Nick’s half-brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) drops in on his family unexpectedly, nothing could prepare Nick for the notion that his brother would be obsessed with Charles Manson and his murder sites. As time rolls on, Nick and Conrad delve into their childhoods and old emotions come bubbling to the surface amid all the Manson damage.
Manson Family Vacation is a strangely moving family drama/comedy centered around Charles Manson and it works incredibly well, despite the silly nature of the premise. Jay Duplass and his brother, Mark, have been recent pioneers in the independent film world and have been bringing wonderful little films to the attention of the masses. If you would have told me five years ago that I’d take away so much from a film focusing on a familial bond with Charles Manson being the center of that bond, I’d laugh in big disbelief. Today, it seems like these brothers can sell anything because of the care that they put into whatever odd story they want to tell.
When you get past the outer-layer of the film and its unusual obsession with “Charlie Manson”, underneath you’ll find the heart of this film that deals with family and how we view other’s happiness. Whether you’re siblings or parents are biological or not, love is a feeling that can extend past that and bring the most unlikely group of people together. Sure, it’s odd to most that someone would be so obsessed with Manson and his followers, but you can look at any group of outspoken supporters of something and arrive with the same judgement. Any group is made up of people who all share a bond through something and if they feel they belong there, who’s to say that their happiness is wrong? The exploration of that notion is what really drives this films more tender moments and it’s what leaves you appreciating the film so much more in the end.
Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips perform very well on their own, but create something truly unique when they’re together. Duplass has what most would view as a normal life and he’s always felt like he’s belonged because he’s always been part of the bloodline. Phillips was adopted and felt like an outcast in his own family, so it makes sense he’d want to be a part of a different family. They differ on nearly everything, but they still have a bond that doesn’t require blood which leads them to care deeply for one another, perhaps even more so than blood brothers. The moments when their differences are cast aside are truly beautiful, as Jay lets his judgement fade and Phillips let go of his pent-up resentment and they laugh together. They reminisce and each actor quits acting and finds a deep appreciation for the time they’re spending with one another.
Director/Writer J. Davis explained the inception of the idea for a film chronicling Manson’s murder sites by citing his fascination with Manson as a kid. Young children are fascinated by death and their understanding (or lack thereof) of the concept can fuel their interest in exploring some dark material. A lot of people research serial killers primarily because their methodology is so intriguing, but that doesn’t mean that the person is mentally unstable. Davis turned this idea into a screenplay that hits on some of those same notions and more than anything, I admire his passion to tell this bizarre sounding story. This goes back to independent cinema and the influence that the Duplass brothers have on telling the great, unusual stories that American cinema has been missing.
At its core, Manson Family Vacation does feel much like many of the independent films that people are familiar with. Its score is along the lines of most which provide a bit of pep in the step of the film and get sorrowful when the mood calls for it. There are some sequences which also feel like they were filmed on a separate camera, due to the fuzzy nature of the shots compared to the clarity of others we’d seen before. Some of the writing near the end extends the film more than it needs to, but Davis does wrap everything with a very neat bow that’s sure to appease anyone.
The Manson Family Vacation is an incredibly pleasing movie which leaves you thinking a lot about the people in your life and your own judgement of those you don’t necessarily give the benefit of the doubt to. You’ll come to reevaluate your own relationships with your loved ones and find yourself more focused on the human condition more than you have been in a long while. Davis’ script works well on its own, but the added benefit of having Duplass and Phillips in the lead roles really makes the film come together neatly. Most everyone will go into this film expecting something profound about Mason, but they should all leave finding something profound about themselves.
Manson Family Vacation Trailer