A familiar relational dynamic — the responsible square vs. the hopeless screw-up — gets an affecting workout in “Manson Family Vacation,” a tale of two bickersome brothers who find tentative reconciliation awaiting them at the end of a long, strange trip. With fewer bigscreen acting credits to his name than his own brother and frequent collaborator Mark, Jay Duplass makes a welcome co-lead here as an uptight family man dealing with the latest shenanigans cooked up by his visiting older sibling, a death-obsessed drifter played with equal assurance by Linas Phillips (“Bass Ackwards”). Their persuasive chemistry should generate modest attention for writer-director J. Davis’ slender but engaging seriocomedy, while providing an early test of Netflix’s potential in the feature-distribution arena.
Hard-working Los Angeles attorney Nick (Duplass) isn’t thrilled to learn that his older brother, Conrad (Phillips), is coming to town for a visit on typically short notice. After the obligatory surprise greeting (Conrad being an inveterate prankster), Davis’ efficient script paints a picture of two polar opposites: Whereas Nick has a wife (Leonora Pitts), a young son (Max Chernick) and a thriving law practice, black sheep Conrad has no personal or professional attachments to speak of. He’s just quit his latest dead-end job, though he’s been offered some vague promise of work at some “environmental organization” in Death Valley, to which he’s passing through L.A. en route.
An artist drawn to all things dark and edgy, Conrad immediately tries to sell Nick on his idea of quality hangout time: a tour of the various L.A. sites where the Manson Family perpetrated its deadly reign of terror almost 50 years earlier. Nick grudgingly goes along for the ride, and even agrees to get high with Conrad for old times’ sake. Before you can say “Helter Skelter,” the two are sneaking into the Los Feliz home once inhabited by Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, passing themselves off as relatives of the murdered couple — a tense, amusing scene that nicely conveys the affection as well as the exasperation that Nick feels for his eccentric older bro. (The location work represents a mix of actual and feigned Manson locations.)
In lesser hands, Conrad’s obsession with Manson (or “Charlie,” as he calls him) could easily have devolved into a cutesy dark-comedy motif. But there turns out to be rather more to this story than meets the eye, as Nick eventually learns when he agrees to drive his brother to his Death Valley destination. There, after still further misadventures, they stumble on a hippie collective committed to putting Manson’s pro-environment, anti-government principles into practice.
This turn of events, which brings Nick and Conrad into close contact with one of Manson’s most devoted adherents (played with creepy gravitas by Tobin Bell), lends the otherwise straightforward proceedings a dark, at times unpredictable edge. It’s revealed early on that Conrad was adopted, which at least partly accounts for why their father was so hard on him and so easy on Nick by comparison; it also accounts for why the Manson mystique, with its promise of community for those who have never fit in with their own, holds such sway over Conrad. If the outcome of the film feels at once daring and more than a little preposterous, Davis just about pulls it off, largely by treating the emotional fallout in completely rational, even realistic fashion.
He’s aided in no small part by his two lead actors, who are wholly convincing as two men whose bond is ultimately far thicker, and deeper, than blood; Phillips is particularly good, sporting a scraggly beard, a mischief-making grin, and a mad-scientist twinkle in his piercing blue eyes that can seem menacing and affectionate by turns. It’s a measure of the film’s dramatic balance as well as its emotional integrity that both of these men will wind up eliciting the viewer’s sympathy and scorn at different points, so that by the end of “Manson Family Vacation,” we have arrived alongside them at a crucial point of transition and understanding — not the most surprising destination, perhaps, but one that feels entirely earned.