Directed by: Jesse Moss.
Like a modern day version of The Grapes of Wrath, desperate men from across America (and even some from around the world) have flocked to North Dakota – where the fracking business is booming, and there are well paying jobs to be had. The problem, of course, is that there is not enough jobs to go around to everyone who shows up – and more dire, there is nowhere for the men who show up looking for work to stay. Lutheran Pastor Jay Reinke, who presided over a congregation in Willston, North Dakota, admits that he has trouble saying no – so would rather just say yes and deal with the consequences. This is how his Overnighters program started. He would let the men who showed up and asked for help to stay at his church – he has plenty of floor space after all, and once that was full, opened up his parking lot so that people could sleep in their cars. To him, this is the Christian thing to do – helping out your fellow man. But not everyone in town feels the same way. They don’t like all the newcomers, and want them to leave. They don’t want their RVs and campers parked in town, they don’t want them staying in the church, and they don’t want them around period. The local newspaper is also against the plan – and uses fear to try stir up passions against the overnighters. Some of this fear is warranted – there was a murder of a local teacher by a pair of men looking for jobs, crime has seen an uptick since all these men showed up in town, and some of the men have criminal records – including a number of sex offenders. Reinke doesn’t see it that way – he knows that if he closes the program, the problem won’t go away. Men are still going to show up looking for work, and if they cannot stay in the church, where will they go? The city and the newspaper don’t see it that way.
The Overnighters is an extraordinary documentary that tells this complex story, with some real life twists and turns that no one in the audience will see coming. The film spends the first part simply looking at the issue itself – interviewing many of the men who have shown up from across the country, explaining why they are here, and getting to know them and Reinke. Everything seems to be going fine. After this setup, the movie mainly focuses on Reinke himself – who is kind, affable, ever forgiving and optimistic. I’ve seen a few reviews refer to him as a real life Ned Flanders – and at first, that seems to be just what he is. He admits how hard everything has been on him and his family personally from him having to spend so much time at the church. He deals with complaints from his congregation – who do not like seeing their church turned into a shelter of sorts. He tries to combat what he considers to be unfair press attention by going door-to-door to the neighbors and making his case. He also goes in front of city council to argue for his program – and the rights of these men. He believes that a true, loving community should welcome these men – and if they do not, what kind of community are they living in, anyway?
The film gets darker as it goes along though. Some of the men, who are very complimentary of Reinke – even admiring in their words about him – turn on him, when Reinke turns their back on them because they have let him down. This leads to one of them going to the press about the number of sex offenders around – which threatens to derail the whole program. Reinke becomes increasingly exasperated in trying to keep all the balls in the air. Then, in a scene late in the third act, there is a stunning, personal revelation about Reinke.
Director Jesse Moss went down to Willston with his camera, and followed Reinke around for months to document this story. He could not have imagined the documentary he ended up with – as real life once again proves to be a little stranger, and more unpredictable, than anything a screenwriter could come up with. Reinke, at first, seems like a model Christian –the type who takes the duty of caring for his fellow man seriously, and wants to help out anyone he can. As the movie moves along, it never loses sympathy for Reinke, and is still a rather glowing portrait of him, but he does become more human, and all that entails, as it progresses as well. Something similar happens to The Overnighters program as well – what starts out looking like a hopeful place, becomes something much more complex as the film moves along. I don’t necessarily agree with the community – who is scared and wants things to go back to the way they were (they don’t seem to realize that is impossible) – but I have sympathy for their position as well. Would you want sex offenders living in your neighborhood? The stories of the men themselves – even those who find jobs – also turn darker as the movie progresses, as desperation gives way to optimism when they find work, and turns dark when there are consequences for them being away from home and family.
The Overnighters never answers the question of what is to be done to make this situation more tenable for everyone involved – probably because there is no answer. But what makes the film so great is that while it starts out as a social issue documentary, it becomes something much more human and complex because of the people – especially Reinke – who it portrays. It is a quietly moving – and devastating – documentary.