EIFF 2015 Review – Manson Family Vacation


Upcoming Netflix release Manson Family Vacation puts Transparent star and one-half of the Duplass production team, Jay Duplass, in a co-lead role for this tale of sibling reconciliation. There is a conventionality in the character dynamics here, but writer-director J. Davis finds a sinister original angle in the spectre of the Manson Family that looms over the proceedings.

Tightly-wound Los Angeles attorney Nick (Duplass) is paid a visit by his free-spirited younger brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) who is passing through the city en route to his new environmental job in Death Valley. Despite the bad ground between the pair Conrad hopes they can bond by visiting the sites of the Manson Family murders around the Los Angeles area.

The emotional drama plays out exactly as you would expect here and J. Davis’s character dynamics are similarly conventional. Repressed Nick is so career focused that he’s lost track of his family, whilst Conrad is the emotionally immature screw-up hiding from his problems. The interactions between the pair range from the box-ticking sweet fraternal bonding to the expected conflicts and reconciliations. However, there is a genuine chemistry between Duplass and Phillips that keeps this small-scale picture engaging from their first reunion until their last scene.

Obsessed with all things morbid Conrad’s latest fascination is “Charlie” Manson leading him to indulge in reading Helter Skelter and roping his younger brother into visiting the Sharon Tate and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca murder sites. The latter actually provides one of the film’s most amusingly awkward moments as the pair pose as the victim’s grandchildren in order to gain a morbid peak at the iconic murder locale. It’s not long before suspicions about the sort of ‘environmental group’ Conrad is searching come to fruition – and this allows Manson Family Vacation to approach some fresh ground.

The Manson nostalgia angle gives Davis’s film an originality which helps it break the confines of the conventional familial drama picture. This is particularly evident in the film’s last act which sees it take on a darker, unpredictable structure as the pair go in search of the man who recruited Conrad, Blackbird (played with a steely gravitas by genre favourite Tobin Bell). Whilst the picture never ventures in ‘horror’ territory, there is a macabre fear lurking in the latter scenes which brings Conrad closer with the subject of his fascination.

Manson Family Vacation is a somewhat left-field take on a conventional dynamic. There is intrigue to be found in the macabre nostalgia that presides over this fraternal reunion aptly performed by Duplass and Phillips.

Andrew McArthur

Genre: Comedy, Drama | Edinburgh Film Festival 2015 | Screened: 19th & 21st June 2015 |Distributor: Netflix | Rating:15 | Director: J Davis | Cast: Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, Leonora Pitts, Tobin Bell