Portraying an African-American family’s travails over the course of several years, Jason Massot’s “Road to Las Vegas” doesn’t purport to be a typical case history. Yet it illuminates with unusual clarity the daily, never-more-relevant struggle of what it’s like to be poor in the U.S., with no place to call home. Packed with vivid, sobering day-to-day details of family life in cramped condos, motel rooms and moving vehicles, this engrossing, discussion-stirring docu looks a good bet for niche broadcast sales.
In a dream, “the Spirit” tells Vanessa Melton to leave Alaska even though she’s hardly ready for it, with $290 cash on hand and several children to support; of the 11 she and husband Maurice have had between them through various relationships, five are still dependent. Nonetheless, she follows the call, hoping prayer with get them through.
Somehow it does, as they make it across the continent and back again — from visiting relatives in Virginia (where Vanessa thought they should stay) to Las Vegas, where they initially camp in a rented SUV outside the airport for lack of better options.
Segmented into chapters, the docu advances year by year, as the family’s prospects periodically brighten — notably when Vanessa gets an ironworking job — then jerk back into worse straits. That’s principally due to Maurice, who keeps drifting back into the crack-addicted, street-dwelling absences that have already cost the couple 17 cars he’s either wrecked or traded off to drug dealers.
He’s forever earnestly avowing fresh starts. But it becomes clear that one reason he keeps falling down is because he knows reluctant Vanessa will always pick him up again.
Viewer sympathy may flag after a certain point as a result. Vanessa is smart and capable, but she’s not helping anyone by continuing to enable the seemingly rehab-proof Maurice. Her own level-headed mother theorizes that Vanessa clings to Maurice because she never knew her own father. But after 15 or so years, Maurice has proved a sporadic parent, husband and provider at best. Their tie refuses to unbind despite his eventual jail stints and her involvements with other, presumably better men (one of whom proposes).
Closing scene hits a cautiously upbeat note, but there’s no certainty this double-trouble team won’t sink further during an economic downturn they were ill prepared to cope with. Verite-shot assembly is pro, and Glenn Jones’ solo acoustic-guitar score is effective.