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L.A. residents hosting visiting relatives might be expected to grin and bear it through another trip to the Walk of Fame, Rodeo Drive or Universal Studios. But what do you do when your aimless, middle-aged brother shows up wanting you to explore sites of the Manson Family murders with him? Jay Duplass handles that chore with as much grace as possible in Manson Family Vacation, J. Davis‘s writing/directing debut. Far less sensationalistic or cutesy-provocative than its title suggests, the film borrows its subject’s infamy to add gravity to some family drama but does so in a good-hearted way. Funny and modestly charming, it will expand Netflix’s investment in the Duplass brothers (the company picked this title up after its January four-film deal with their production company) but isn’t likely to make a tremendous impact on its own.
Duplass plays Nick, a settled Angeleno whose brother Conrad (Linas Phillips) shows up unannounced one night having quit his job and hitchhiked cross-country. He says he’s going to work for an environmental group in Death Valley, and is hoping to do some brotherly bonding beforehand. Disturbingly, this bonding is meant to occur while sneaking around houses made famous by the Tate/LaBianca killings; in one comically nail-biting sequence, they even talk their way into a home by claiming to be the grandchildren of the victims.
Initially, the pic’s focus on exasperated sibling dynamics and old grudges recalls other Duplass productions The Do-Deca-Pentathlon and The Puffy Chair. But while Davis has brotherly reconciliation as his eventual goal, the familiar tone of laid-back goofiness here leads to something stranger: A twist (many will guess it early on, but better not to spoil it here) raises issues that recast the way Nick sees his black-sheep brother and invite us (in an unpushy way) to ponder questions about identity, self-worth and loyalty.
Phillips, who has had a few small acting gigs since his 2010 Sundance directing/starring vehicle Bass Ackwards, is strong in this role, as peculiarly confident toward the end as he is eccentric at the start — where he discusses trivia from the Manson history Helter Skelter with the same “you’re into this, right?” enthusiasm as the conspiracy theorist evaluating accounts of the JFK assassination in Slacker. Duplass, though lacking his brother Mark’s easy charisma onscreen, makes a sympathetic straight man for these comments. Whether the “family vacation” they wind up undertaking together turns out to be a reunion or a catastrophe, Conrad’s unexpected interests will soon prove to be anything but frivolous.
Production company: Lucky Hot Entertainment
Cast: Jay Duplass, Linas Phillips, Tobin Bell, Leonora Pitts, Adam Chernick, Davie-Blue
Director-Screenwriter: J. Davis
Producers: Steve Bannatyne, Eric Blyler, J.M. Logan, Josh Polon, Matt Ratner, Alexandra Sandler
Executive producers: Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Ray William Johnson, Kaja Martin, Michael Anderson, Samantha Kern, T.S. Nowlin, Christopher Sepulveda, Scott Trimble
Director of photography: Sean McElwee
Production designer: Erin O. Kay
Costume designer: Lindsay Monahan
Editors: Nick Sherman, Dave Boyle
Music: Heather McIntosh
Casting director: Mary Hidalgo
No rating, 84 minutes
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