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SXSW Review: Manson Family Vacation

From Lina Phillips' ticks - his quick-burst nervous laughter after nearly everything he mutters, the awkward, uncomfortable way he holds himself, his unsettling obsession with Charles Manson - we know something's off. The journey is uncovering what and the platform is J. Davis' Manson Family Vacation - a dark family drama that knots itself up in misunderstandings and a trembling desire to be accepted. It's eerily funny, smartly performed and more twisty than you would expect for an independent film.

Produced by the Duplass Brothers, Manson Family Vacation stars Jay Duplass (the skinny, dark-haired older sibling of indie prince Mark) as Nick, a man who believes he has it all figured out. He's got the white picket fence, the loving, supportive wife (Leonora Pitts) and a child with a recent penchant for off-colored drawings. When Nick's shleppy artist brother Conrad (Phillips) arrives on his doorstep - or rather under his bed, bearing a knife - Nick is confronted with the harsh reality that maybe he and his recently deceased pops weren't always the gentlest of family members to the adopted, eccentric Connie.

Well into his 40s, Conrad is a black sheep, still struggling with the weight of "childhood stuff." Having just quit his job and sold all his belongings, he asks Nick to take him on a tour of the Manson hot spots (a distressingly comic bit plays out at the LaBianca house) because he thought it would be a "nice thing for them to do together." When I'm out with my brother, we usually get some oysters and local brews but the dynamic between Conrad and Nick is one of deep-seated discomfort.

Nick is visibly shaken by his brother's recent predilections of all things Manson while Conrad fails to see just why his older brother - he who is supposed to protect and shepherd him - won't even attempt to get outside of his comfort zone to appease this one particular ask. The chemistry between Phillips' and Duplass is an icy hot pack - at one moment, they're on the same page playing the buddy-buddy role and another, they're at each other's throats so diametrically opposed that they can't even grasp how in the hell the other one could think the way that they do.

A larger theme of open-mindedness and acceptance comes into play when Nick agrees to drive Conrad to his new "job" at an "environmental organization" and things begin to trend sketchy. When Tobin Bell enters the picture, the unease escalates palpably. As the film barrels towards a totally unexpected conclusion, Davis succeeds at winning our investment and our empathy, brewing up a sense of understanding that challenges the rational human mind.

Davis drafted the script from seeds of his own life. At a young age, he found a copy of "Helter Skelter" - his grandfather was a police chief and had snatched it up quick - and grew a mounting fascination with everything Manson. Real life friend Jay Duplass had trouble understanding and accepting Davis' unusual fixation and much of the character dispositions was born of their true-to-life failure to see eye-to-eye on the matter. As the underlying notions of nature vs. nuture and genetics come to head in the third act, Davis makes way for a surprisngly tender examination of family. Who we are and where we come from acutely informs character motivations in Manson in such a way that you might not anticipate as you're going through it but will be able to make sense of once it's all said and done.

For a low-fi indie movie, there are some great things at play - strong performances, an enticing script, mounting suspense, a huge payoff - even though some of the trappings of small budgets features don't escape Manson Family Vacation's grasp. Cinematography from Sean McElwee seems sloppily lit - some indoors shots are especially second-rate - giving the film a kind of home video look at times. Infrequent, scuzzy technical issues aside, J. Davis' film is a product of an era and a fascination that rings true to the outcast mentality. The only problem is now I have an undying wish to watch Charles Manson watch this movie.


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