Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass have leveraged their success to become something akin to indie-movie moguls, using their names as producers and presences as actors to help struggling filmmakers get their projects off the ground. The brothers’ latest protégé is writer-director J. Davis, whose debut feature Manson Family Vacation was produced by the Duplasses as part of their deal with Netflix and stars Jay along with Linas Phillips. It starts out as a Duplassian study of two estranged brothers, lawyer and family man Nick (Jay Duplass) and burnout drifter Conrad (Phillips), who reunite awkwardly when Conrad crashes at Nick’s upscale Los Angeles home.
Obsessed with the Charles Manson murders, Conrad drags his brother around Los Angeles to various landmarks of the case, and his fixation is equal parts endearing and unnerving. It serves mainly to illuminate the broken relationship between the two brothers, further alienated since the recent death of their father. It also provides for a sort of underground Los Angeles travelogue, or at least it seems like it’s going to until the story takes a turn.
The movie’s first half is low-key and mostly charming, with Duplass and Phillips riffing on their dysfunctional but loving brotherly relationship. Then Nick agrees to drive Conrad to Death Valley for what Conrad says is a new job with an environmental group, and the movie takes a dark, somewhat far-fetched turn that makes its connection to Manson far more than just a plot device for fraternal bonding.
The fraternal bonding is still central to the story, and it’s ultimately what holds the movie together, but the creepiness of the second half often works against the appealing family dynamic. When Tobin Bell, Jigsaw from the Saw movies, shows up as Conrad’s shady contact in the supposed environmentalist organization, it’s clear something strange is going on, and Davis really commits to his third-act twist. It’s hard to know how to take this turn for the macabre, especially since Nick and Conrad’s fractured relationship retains most of the focus. Duplass plays Nick as a superficially successful man who’s emotionally disconnected from his wife (Leonora Pitts) and son (Adam Chernick), but he never quite conveys the supposed anger that Conrad resents him for.
Phillips is a more dominating presence, revealing the hurt and trauma behind Conrad’s laid-back itinerant lifestyle. With his shaggy haircut and bushy beard, he even looks a bit like Manson, a connection that becomes more relevant as the movie goes on. It’s not entirely clear, however, why the specter of this delusional murderer should have such an impact on the brothers’ relationship, even when he improbably inserts himself right in the middle of it.
Davis is telling a story about the fragile bond between siblings (Conrad was adopted, while Nick is their parents’ biological child), and tying that story to Manson sometimes seems a bit tasteless, paradoxically more so when it’s played for pathos rather than humor. All its disparate parts don’t quite come together, but Manson Family Vacation is exactly the kind of oddball vision that might never get a major push from a brand name if not for the Duplasses, and in that sense, they continue to do a great service to independent cinema.