People continue to be fascinated by Charles Manson. Some viewers thought the Manson Family would intersect with Megan Draper’s storyline on Mad Men and NBC’s new series Aquarius centers on the family. But beyond popular culture there are certain individuals who still find themselves drawn to Manson – and Conrad (Linas Phillips) is one of them.
Conrad is a bit of a black sheep in his family – the adopted brother that felt pushed aside when his parents got pregnant with his brother Nick (Jay Duplass). Now adults, Nick is a buttoned up partner at a prominent law firm with a family of his own while Conrad is a bit of a drifter carrying all his worldly possessions on his back.
When Conrad shows up to stay with Nick and his family for a few days he quickly explains that he will soon be on his way to a new job with an environmental group, but before he goes he wants to spend some time with Nick touring the now infamous Manson sites throughout Los Angeles. Nick begrudgingly agrees to go and the two brothers set off on a journey that turns out to be more about their family than the one Manson created.
Even though Manson Family Vacation highlights the locations of some of the horrific events Manson was involved in the film keeps things light. Conrad may wear a t-shirt with Charles Manson’s face on it and carry around a copy of “Helter Skelter,” but Phillips fills his performance with a childlike wonder that makes Conrad (or Connie, as his family calls him) more charming than scary. Phillips’ big, bright blue eyes fill the screen and even when he is talking about how people were killed, his simple enthusiasm almost makes his interest in Manson seem more innocent than disturbing. The film constantly subverts these darker moments thanks Heather McIntosh’s jaunty score which helps give Manson Family Vacation an almost humorous tone. Despite the ominous title, the film is a simple story about what it means to be family.
Nick and Conrad are polar opposites and their time together comes across like an episode of The Odd Couple with Conrad’s simple joy juxtaposed again Nick’s constant anxiety (played perfectly by Duplass). However the similarities between the two brothers shine through in their scenes together and are among the best in the film. Nick may complain to his wife Amanda (Leonora Pitts) about Conrad before he arrives, but the moment Conrad bursts back into Nick’s life, a true sense of joy and excitement seems to overtake him.
There are really two journeys that happen in Manson Family Vacation — the one that makes up the first half of the film with Nick and Conrad visiting the different Manson sites and the one that fills the film’s second half as Nick drives Conrad to his new job. While the first journey may sound more enticing, it is the second journey that really gets to the root of these brother’s relationship and what is truly behind Conrad’s fixation on Manson. The film would have benefited by spending a little less time on the Manson tour and focusing on the longer road trip the brother’s embark on together (set to Manson’s music).
Nick and Conrad know how to tease, laugh, and talk as only brothers can, but there is also a palpable strain between them that seems centered around their father’s recent death. Conrad may laugh in astonishment when standing outside one of Manson’s victim’s houses, but he cannot seem to come to terms with the death that affected his own family. However as soon as Nick and Conrad start talking through their true feelings about the loss of their father and their relationships with him (and, more importantly, each other), they get derailed when other people are introduced into the mix.
Manson Family Vacation’s writer and director J. Davis highlights this by showing how the brother’s dynamic dramatically shifts when Nick and Conrad are not one-on-one. When Conrad finally meets up with his environmental group, there is an affecting shot of Conrad walking ahead with one of the group’s members while Nick lags behind. These scenes are important to show how fragile their relationship is, but some of them (like the scenes of Conrad with Nick’s son or Conrad and a potential love interest) feel superfluous and end up just slowing the film down.
Charles Manson certainly plays a part in the film, but it is relationship between Nick and Conrad that is most facinating and keeps you transfixed throughout the winding narrative. Manson Family Vacation proves Nick and Conrad are better when they are together and Davis wisely keeps their relationship at the center of the film, no matter what the two brothers encounter on their journey together.
The Upside: Stand out performance from Phillips; a simple story framed around an interesting narrative; a fun score that plays to the film’s overall tone
The Downside: A few unnecessary scenes that kept the focus away from the brothers too long; would have benefited from more time spent on journey in second half of film than first half
On the Side: Manson Family Vacation was recently picked up by Netflix to be released this fall