Keeping It All In The (Manson) Family

Manson's Lost Girls rises above the usual wiki dreck with help from Hollywood royalty.

We should all probably agree as a society not to make any more movies or miniseries about Charles Manson. It's understandable that the rise to shabby, twisted power of this runty guru ("gurunt"?) preoccupies us, I guess, because it seems so bizarre -- but at the same time, it doesn't, really. The '60s saw a lot of things come unmoored, and it's not all that difficult to see how Manson managed to gather a flock of extremely damaged followers and leverage their pathologies to his advantage. What is difficult is making these icons of the era compelling as people; we know what became of them, and it's not any easier from a distance to find them sympathetic.

Manson's Lost Girls is something of a surprise in that regard. I can't say it's essential, because, again, we've seen every tie-dyed variation on the story on TV already, but this one is more watchable than most, in no small part because it chooses to settle its POV on Linda Kasabian. Kasabian was Vincent Bugliosi's star witness in the Tate-LaBianca murder trials, one of the few Manson adherents who found a way not to cross the ultimate line. Mackenzie Mauzy as Kasabian is relatable, and the set-up gives us a solid understanding of how she specifically blundered into Manson's orbit.

But the script's neatest trick is making all of Manson's girls relatable -- and distinguishable. It's not something most Manson projects bother doing, and as these women murdered, thieved, and carved swastikas into their foreheads on Manson's orders, you can understand how dimensionalizing Squeaky Fromme is not the priority. That said, you sit through enough of these things and you appreciate that gregarious, bossy Susan is set apart from obedient, twitchy Squeaky, or mood-swingy Patricia Krenwinkel. I for one appreciated that the tack taken with exploring Manson's power over the group emphasized his controlling them with drugs and abuse, instead of making the times and the girls' family backgrounds equally responsible.

Manson's Lost Girls is, in other words, not solely about Manson; it remembers that they're lost, and it remembers that they're girls. The women laugh a lot more than they usually do in a Manson Family pic; granted, that's fucked up, because they're in a car on their way to break into an occupied house and steal some heirlooms -- at best -- but what makes ManFam material so tiresome is the tendency to portray them all as nonstop 24/7 spooky or whacked or monstrous. And a couple of them probably were, but they still fantasized about cheeseburgers and fresh laundry sometimes.

The performances help, not just Mauzy but a...well, let's not use the term "murderer's row," but it's an impressive line-up of pedigreed talent: Kelsey Grammer's daughter Greer as Leslie Van Houten; Michael Madsen's son Christian as Tex Watson; and Josh Brolin's daughter Eden as Susan Atkins. Grammer didn't really register with me, but Madsen and Brolin each did something new with their respective roles that actually made me pay attention to a case I'd gotten fed up with ages ago. (Hat tip to Jeff Ward as Manson, overcoming a possibly ruinous resemblance to Elijah Wood and making his Charlie a repellently manipulative rageball.)

Again, it's still Manson, and if you've had it with TV projects semi-fetishizing these murders, I get it, because I have too -- so you can believe me when I tell you, Manson's Lost Girls is a little bit different. It tries to go a different, thoughtful way.

Manson's Lost Girls premieres on Lifetime Saturday, February 6, at 8 PM ET.

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