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What does it actually mean to be someone’s “brother”? Is it a purely genealogical notion, a biological distinction marked by nothing more than one’s parentage: the male offspring of your mother and father is your brother, nothing more or less? Is it a societal notion connected to a sense of deep kindred and mutual reliance: the soldiers that you live, train and die with are your “brothers,” regardless of whether you’re blood-related or not? Does biology always guarantee kinship, at some level, or do you have to actively work to achieve that kind of relationship?

What about adopted siblings? Society tells you that your adopted brother is just as much kin as a blood relation, a bond which is doubtlessly reinforced by each and every family that welcomes adopted children into their homes. But is he? Can adopted siblings ever develop the deep-seated bonds of blood relations? Can someone ever truly and unconditionally embrace their adopted sibling, take them into their heart and call them “brother” with the complete and utter conviction of one that they actually share genetic material with? At the end of the day, what does it really mean to call someone “brother”?

First-time writer/director J. Davis’ Manson Family Vacation (2015) takes a stab at this question via two brothers: straight-laced family man/contract lawyer, Nick (Jay Duplass) and his restless, nomadic, uber-hippy, adopted brother, Conrad (Linas Phillips). After Conrad suddenly pops back up in Nick’s life, while en route to a new job in Death Valley, the two brothers get a chance to reconnect and work on their often contentious relationship. At his wife’s urging, Nick swallows his own misgivings and attempts to reconnect with his estranged sibling.

When Conrad’s obsession with Charles Manson and his cult leads to the brothers touring various “murder houses,” however, Nick finds it harder than ever to see eye-to-eye with his “weirdo” brother, especially since he’s now dealing with antisocial behavior from his own teen son, Max (Adam Chernick), and is worried that Conrad is going to provide the worst sort of role model possible. When he comes in to find Conrad gleefully showing Max his favorite grisly crime scene photos from Helter Skelter, it kinda seems like he may have a point.

As the brothers check off “must-sees” on Conrad’s list, though, they find themselves settling into an uneasy balancing act that might, given time, actually blossom into something approaching “love,” if not quite “respect.” Nothing is ever quite as it seems, however, and a secret regarding Conrad’s real parents threatens to tear apart the brothers’ tentative relationship before it’s had a chance to fully heal. Will Nick and Conrad be able to put aside their differences and embrace one another or is it finally time for them to cut ties and burn all their old bridges to the ground?

Despite a gloriously goofy presence and some delightfully comic setpieces (the scene where Nick and Conrad finagle their way into the old Labianca house, under very false pretenses, is a minor comic masterpiece, for one), there’s a big, dramatic heart that beats at the center of Manson Family Vacation and some genuine emotional resonance to the scenario. This is a film that could have easily devolved into pointless whimsy and sub-Andersonian dramatics but manages to effortlessly balance the lighter and darker aspects with a particularly deft hand.

While writer/director Davis deserves no end of credit here (the script, for one, is exceptional), especially considering his first time status, Manson Family Vacation is an acting showcase, first and foremost: the film wouldn’t have nearly the impact without the combined power of Duplass and Phillips’ extraordinary performances. Watching Nick and Conrad feint around each other, coming cautiously closer and sniffing around before bolting back to the safety of their respective hard-set world views, is a pure and unmitigated pleasure, perhaps the greatest since Matthau and Lemmon made such a memorable odd couple on the silver screen.

In other hands, either character could have become a one-dimensional cliche: hell, “uptight, married lawyer in need of cutting loose” and “hippy burnout with dreams of making an impact” are practically commedia dell’arte stand-bys in the modern cinematic world. Duplass and Phillips don’t stop with the short description, however, imbuing their performances with enough nuance and shading to make them seem like real people, not production notes in the margin of a film pitch.

There’s an authenticity to their interactions that’s not only refreshing but infinitely more interesting than the usual cookie-cutter treatment of the same: while the relationship (and film) hit plenty of the expected beats, it does so organically rather than as carefully delineated points on a plot breakdown. When Nick rips the phone from Conrad’s hand during his welcome party with “the Family” and ruins his “reunion” with his father, the combined sense of jealously, pain, anger and the terrible need to lash out against someone, anyone, bursts out of the screen like heat from a blast furnace. Ditto the incredible, subtle moment where Conrad finally gets to witness his tireless devotion to Charles Manson from the inside and doesn’t seem to like it one little bit. They’re the kinds of scenes that would be standouts in any film but, here, they have plenty of good company.

Ultimately, what J. Davis and his exceptional cast (including the single most restrained performance by Tobin Bell since his delightful surprise appearance in the U.S. version of Wilfred) have done is created a cinematic Trojan horse: Manson Family Vacation’s goofy, lighthearted and slightly silly exterior hides a surprisingly powerful, deep and thought-provoking interior. While the comedic material is constantly fun and frequently laugh-out-loud funny (Conrad’s description of his travel memoir as “On the Road: Part 2” is a real gem), the dramatic material has real bite to it.

As Nick and Conrad lay their relationship out bare, rehash childhood wrongs and debate what it actually means to be someone’s “brother,” as Conrad comes closer to the father that he never knew and as Nick finally realizes the responsibility that he bears regarding his relationship with his own son, Manson Family Vacation manages to do something quite difficult and equally wonderful: it makes you absentmindedly wipe away the tear that’s traveled down your cheek, even as you guffaw at the next ridiculous situation. J. Davis’ Manson Family Vacation has real heart and I’ll take that any old day of the week.

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