Bizarre family bonding and death obsession collide in the latest mumblecore dramedy exec produced by pioneers of the style, the Duplass Brothers. The plot focuses on Conrad (Linas Phillips), a wild and unpredictable man who quits his job and sells all of his worldly possessions to go hitchhiking out on the road with a new job at a non-profit environmental organization as his ultimate location.
Along the way he decides to visit his far more organised step-brother Nick (a rare acting appearance by Jay Duplass), an uptight but very responsible family man whose controlled life is disrupted by the arrival of his adopted brother. At first making the best of the visit, he gets a shocking surprise when Conrad reveals a strange obsession with Charles Manson and his followers that he called “The Family.” Conrad then drags Nick around on a tour of the locations where the serial killer’s horrible crimes were committed.
It’s an odd, rather rambling set-up even by the standards of the mumblecore sub-genre and it makes for a fittingly odd and rambling film indeed. It’s never quite one thing or the other and occasionally that works in the film’s favour, lending it an unpredictable quality at its best moments. However, it ultimately leaves it feeling more aimless than anything else, leading to a frustratingly uneven experience and one without any clear point to it.
There are some nice performances, particularly from Duplass who becomes increasingly exasperated by his reckless brother’s actions, as well as Phillips as Conrad who you’re never quite sure if he’s full of crap or truly believes in his various Manson-centric conspiracy theories. The characters aren’t particularly well drawn on paper but the actors imbue them with just enough believability so that, even when the so-called titular vacation loses its way entirely, you at least have their personalities to cling into.
It’s revealed early on that Conrad was adopted and this lies at the heart of their bickering antagonism – Conrad always felt like an outsider, Nick never felt like he could accept him – when they’re not tricking their way into the Tate residence or sharing the odd joint. And while this provides for a couple of the film’s most effective moments, they are sadly few and far between and not exactly saying anything revelatory.
Just what the film is trying to say with its Manson theme, including its oddly prominent use of footage of him in jail talking gobbledygook and dancing around, is never really clear and becomes even more murky when the film reveals certain things about Conrad that may take him beyond just morbid cultural obsession. That rather muddled and confusing approach doesn’t exactly help a film that, while certainly punctuated with moments of truthful humour, struggles to find its location on the map.