Film Review: ‘Manson Family Vacation’

Jay Duplass and Linas Phillips play bickering brothers in J. Davis' slender but engaging debut.

Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, Leonora Pitts, Adam Chernick, Davie-Blu, Tobin Bell.

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.)

Popular on Variety

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.

Film Review: 'Manson Family Vacation'

Reviewed at SXSW Film Festival (competing), March 17, 2015. Running time: 84 MIN.

Production: A Netflix release of a Lucky Hat Entertainment, Tilted Windmill Prods., Mom & Pop Empire production in association with Logolite Entertainment. Produced by Stephen Bannatyne, Eric Blyler, Ali Sandler, Josh Polon, J.M. Logan. Executive producer, Jay Duplass. Co-producers, William A. Bailey, Dave Bullock, Charlene Davis, Kyle Fischer, Stephen W. Kern.

Crew: Directed, written by J. Davis. Camera (color), Sean Mcelwee; editor, Nick Sherman; music, Heather McIntosh; music supervisors, Tiffany Anders, Margaret Saadi Kramer; production designers, Erin O. Kay, Erin Magill; art directors, Kerri Fernsworth, Feazell, Magill; sound (Dolby Digital), James DeVore; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Carlos Sanches; assistant director, Greg Ryan; casting, Mary Hidalgo.

With: Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, Leonora Pitts, Adam Chernick, Davie-Blu, Tobin Bell.

More Film

  • Ordinary Justice

    Berlin: 'Ordinary Justice' Director Chiara Bellosi on Fascination With Courthouses

    Young Italian director Chiara Bellosi is at the Berlinale with “Ordinary Justice” which examines the lives of two families on opposite sides of a murder case who intersect on the benches outside the room where the case is being tried. This first work, screening in Generation14Plus, is produced by Carlo Cresto-Dina who discovered Alice Rohrwacher (“The Wonders,” “Happy [...]

  • The Invisible Man

    Elisabeth Moss in 'The Invisible Man': Film Review

    These days, the horror-fantasy thriller tends to be a junk metaphysical spook show that throws a whole lot of scary clutter at the audience — ghosts, “demons,” mad killers — without necessarily adding up to an experience that’s about anything. But in “The Invisible Man,” Leigh Whannell’s ingenious and entertaining update of a concept that’s [...]

  • Nora Arnezeder

    Berlin: Wide's Thriller 'Blast' Sold to Japan, Latin America at the EFM (EXCLUSIVE)

    “Blast,” a high-concept thriller produced and represented in international markets by Paris-based company Wide, has sold to several territories at the EFM in Berlin. Vanya Peirani-Vignes’ feature debut, “Blast” takes place Parisian parking lot where Sonia finds herself trapped in her car with her son while her boyfriend’s daughter has been left outside to deal [...]

  • digger

    Greek Director Grigorakis Saddles up 'Western' 'Digger' at Berlin

    For a feature debut that he describes as a contemporary Western, Greek director Georgis Grigorakis settled on a familiar archetype — “a lonely guy with his horse, with his shotgun” — who, in keeping with the genre’s conventions, is drawn into a confrontation and is prepared to fight to the bitter end in the defense [...]

  • North Macedonian directors Ljubo Stefanov (R)

    Berlin: 'Honeyland' Directors Prepping New Projects (EXCLUSIVE)

    Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, the Macedonian directors of the dual Oscar-nominated documentary “Honeyland,” are prepping several new projects, Variety has learned exclusively. The directing duo are looking to build on the success of their debut, a moving portrait of a lone beekeeper struggling to preserve a traditional way of life, which was nominated for [...]

  • David-Casademunt-and-Joaquin

    Rodar y Rodar Boards “The Beast” (EXCLUSIVE)

    Barcelona-based Rodar y Rodar, producer of Spanish horror titles such as J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage” and Oriol Paulo’s “The Body, has thrown its weight behind David Casademunt’s “The Beast,” boarding it as its main producer. “The Beast,” which participated in Filmarket Hub’s 2017 Sitges Pitchbox event as well as Ventana Sur’s 2017 Blood Window, it [...]

  • Bad Tales

    Italy's Pepito Prods. Shines With 'Bad Tales' (EXCLUSIVE) Trailer

    Italy’s Pepito Prods., at Berlin with competition drama “Bad Tales” by Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, is emerging as a new home for the country’s auteurs.  The company, headed by former RAI head of drama Agostino Saccà in January, scored more than $6 million in Italian cinemas with veteran Gianni Amelio’s “Hammamet,” a biopic of disgraced [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content