Now that Halloween has come and gone, and I can safely venture out of Netflix’s mostly-lackluster horror queue into other areas without feeling like I’m slacking off on my (unpaid) “responsibilities,” I’m finding that there are actually a few interesting things available to stream at the moment, and one of the first things that caught my eye when I wandered into the “indie” section was a Kickstarter-funded (to the tune of approximately $40,000) effort that was lensed earlier this very year and saw release onto so-called “home viewing platforms” on October 6th called Manson Family Vacation, the brainchild of writer/director J. Davis working in conjunction (to one degree or another) with brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, who are making something of a name for themselves in the world of low-budget independent cinema.
Mark — who recently did a bang-up job in the movie Creep — doesn’t seem to have much of a direct stake in the goings-on here, but Jay is one of the two main stars of the film, and their production house is listed prominently in the credits, so, whether fairly or not, this is a flick that’s been associated with both of them from the outset and will likely continue to be for the foreseeable future even if the chief “creative vision” here is, in fact, somebody else’s altogether.
Is that enough by way of preamble? I kinda think it is, so let’s talk about the movie.
Nick (played by Duplass) is a successful lawyer and devoted family man who hasn’t seen his “black sheep” brother, Conrad (Linas Phillips) in years, and while it’s not entirely fair to say that the two are “estranged,” Conrad’s free-wheeling, perpetually-unemployed ways don’t exactly fit in with Nick’s uptight uber-conservative lifestyle. All that changes, though, when the scruffy brother turns up at the buttoned-down one’s doorstep and convinces him to take a few days off work so that they can check out the sites associated with the notorious Tate-LaBianca murders. And we’re not just talking about the houses where the shit went down here — Conrad, a genuine Manson devotee, is determined to visit other, more obscure locales, such as the restaurant where Sharon Tate ate her last meal and the various desert encampments where Charlie and his “family” set up shop prior to attracting the attention of L.A. county sheriff’s deputies. Yes, friends, our resident “true believer” is on a good old-fashioned pilgrimage here, with Nick along for the ride to make sure he doesn’t get into too much trouble.
Tonally, Davis tends to bob and weave between trying to play the entire absurd scenario for laughs, and making less-than-subtle statements about who the real “success story” in the family is — Conrad, who for all his obvious faults is at least free to follow his own (admittedly warped) muse, or Nick, who brings home a nice income, but is apparently a bit hen-pecked by his wife, Amanda (Leonora Pitts), and can’t seem to figure out how to relate to his young son, Max (Adam Chernick). We’ve seen this theme explored countless times before in “buddy” movies, of course, but it takes on an extra level of weird when the “outsider” of the pair is obsessed with one of history’s most infamous criminals.
Things take an even sharper turn for the bizarre, though, once our “odd couple on bad acid” make the acquaintance of one Blackbird (played by Saw himself, Tobin Bell), and it becomes apparent that what we all thought we knew about the so-called “Manson Family” is very far from the actual truth — and while it would be unfair to say that the film’s last act is a straight-up “thriller,” tried-and-true “thriller” elements do, in fact, make their presence felt as events careen toward a genuinely out-of-left-field conclusion that I promise you won’t see coming. The entire ride is definitely a bumpy one with, sorry to say, far more lows than highs, but Manson Family Vacation does at least manage to more or less redeem itself thanks to very solid lead performances and a heckuva balls-y final twist.
Still, I can imagine that a fair number of right-thinking individuals will probably have checked out of this one long before Davis finally gets around to sticking the knife in, and I can’t really say that I’d blame anyone for doing so —- this is a movie that will surely try your patience at times before ultimately rewarding it. If you’re more the sort of viewer who enjoys a story that clearly knows what it’s doing from the outset, this probably won’t be your cup of tea. But if you’re willing to stick it out as Davis finds his footing, I think you’ll be happy that you did so.
Obviously, I can only give Mason Family Vacation a (very) qualified recommendation, but I think its young director is, in fact, qualified to keep going and to be allowed enough leeway to find his niche as a filmmaker. There’s a reasonably authentic voice at work here, and if Davis can avoid some of the pitfalls he succumbs to this time around in future efforts, I think he’s got a fairly bright future ahead of him traversing America’s dark underbelly.