Writer-director J. Davis’s Manson Family Vacation is a disarmingly unpredictable tale of reconciliation between two brothers. When Conrad (Linas Phillips) shows up to visit his estranged brother, Nick (Jay Duplass), the two are revealed to be such polar opposites that it’s no surprise to learn that Conrad was adopted: Big, blond, shaggy, unemployed Conrad is laidback but radiates an air of outlaw unpredictability, while dark, slight Nick, a successful lawyer, is buttoned down from his shirt to his emotions. The shock is in learning that Conrad’s adoptive father and brother were relentlessly critical of him, denying him the love they shared with each other.
Nick’s disapproval is fueled on this visit by Conrad’s newfound obsession with Charles Manson, whom he talks about with a giggly excitement that suggests admiration. His obsession gives even the film’s most innocuous scenes a frisson of danger, leaving open the question of just how devoted Conrad is to the murderous Manson. Old news footage, which covers enough of the basics to clue in viewers who know nothing about Manson, focuses on his vision of family, with clips of the man talking about his childhood and what he wants for his son providing more fodder for the nature-versus-nurture debate that percolates under Nick and Conrad’s lifelong feud.