Rarely does a documentary manage to encapsulate its subject matter with the kind of beauty and non-judgemental insight as Jason Massot’s latest film, Road to Las Vegas (2010).
Spanning four years, it follows the lives of African American couple Vanessa and Maurice Melton and their five children as they leave home and set off on an indefinite road trip to Las Vegas, where – as Vanessa believes she was told in a message from God – the family will prosper and find a better home.
With no more than $300 to their name and using their car as a home, Road to Las Vegas provides a superb insight into the many difficulties and personal traumas the family are forced to deal with, in an account that is at times painfully personal, yet conducted with sensitivity and sympathy from Massot throughout.
Unfolding in the style of a traditional road movie, Road to Las Vegas depicts the false promise of new beginnings for a family such as the Meltons, particularly in Las Vegas, where the city’s booming tourist industry offers the opportunity of employment and the ideal setting for a family in search of work and a new home. However, on arrival, Maurice realises that things may be somewhat more problematic than first thought. In the first year of the film he initially finds the kind of job offers he was hoping for, only to realise that due to the enormous demand for work, the income rate is ludicrously low. Rather than accept these unfair conditions, the family continue to search for better paid work. Unfortunately for them, their search is met with similar results.
As the film progresses, the family’s plight begins to deteriorate with each year. It is revealed that Maurice has an addiction to crack cocaine, forcing him to leave his family and live on the streets, whilst Vanessa begins seeing one of Maurice’s friends. It is moments such as these where Massot’s abilities really come into play. At no point does the documentary take sides during these family troubles or make any kind of judgement, it simply captures, with unflinching detail, the situation of the family, allowing the audience to think for themselves.
At times, Road to Las Vegas makes for deeply harrowing viewing. One of the most notable examples of this is at the funeral of Maurice’s borther Lloyd, in which we see Maurice – usually so extremely tough on the surface – in a state of debilitating grief, weeping and sobbing openly at his brother’s coffin. Although scenes such as this may sound intrusive, Massot expertly walks a fine line between invasiveness and insightfulness.
For some, these scenes will undoubtedly be unsettling and uncomfortable. However, in my view, they are a necessary part of the documentation of the family’s journey and their losses along the way. Furthermore, in the context of the film, Lloyd’s death does appear to play an integral part in Maurice’s determination to get clean and support his family.
In contrast to Road to Las Vegas’ moments of sadness and grief, the film also succeeds in highlighting the love that both Vanessa and Maurice have for their family. Despite their numerous issues, the couple’s love for their children remain at the heart of the film, as does the children’s amazing ability to deal with the spiralling troubles directly surrounding them. In many ways, Road to Las Vegas could also be read as a testament to the family’s unremitting love for each other, as well as the grit and determination of Vanessa and Maurice to stay together through such desperate times.
It is this superbly balanced and wonderfully constructed snapshot of four years condensed into a 90 minute documentary, which make for such a brilliantly engaging and informative piece of work.