Review: The Overnighters


The Overnighters

The searing documentary The Overnighters asks a lot of hard questions. The hardest may be, "What does community mean?"

Shot in Williston, North Dakota, filmmaker Jesse Moss's documentary -- which Drafthouse Films is releasing Friday in Austin -- captures the tiny town in the midst of the current North Dakota oil boom. The boom is a blessing and a curse: The townspeople welcome the unprecedented economic boost, but have mixed feelings about the influx of thousands of oil field workers.

The main problem is housing. Most new arrivals have nowhere to live, so many sleep in their cars, trucks and RVs, parked wherever they can. Another problem is less about logistics than human nature: The workers are roughnecks in every sense of the word -- desperately poor men, often with little education, all chasing quick money and some running from their pasts. To the good and decent citizens (in the ironic sense; more on this later) of Williston, the men are the others -- a scruffy, scary and unwelcome lot. The townspeople's hospitality ends where their fear begins.

The Overnighters focuses on Rev. Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor in Williston who opens his church as temporary housing for the workers. He does so because helping thy neighbor is one of his pastoral duties, of course; he's also immensely compassionate and nonjudgmental, a man who cares deeply about the often broken men who desperately seek the church's help. Far more than just their landlord, he's their counselor and friend.

Oh, if only Reinke's flock and the church's neighbors understood and practiced Christianity the way he does. The congregation doesn't exactly welcome the men with open arms; at best, the church folk grudgingly tolerate Reinke's hospitality because he's their pastor. The neighbors are far less charitable, complaining that they don't want a "homeless shelter" in their neighborhood.

In a nutshell, the congregation and neighbors do not think community means what Reinke thinks it means.

This unfortunate difference of opinion is at the heart of The Overnighters. As Reinke tirelessly helps the workers (we all would do well to follow his example), he also tries to promote tolerance, understanding and compassion. His battle is uphill every step of the way; even the Williston city council, beset by citizen complaints, wants to "solve" the homeless worker problem by banning sleeping in vehicles. The local media are no help either, sensationalizing the jump in crime (an inevitability when thousands of people move to town) and further scaring the citizenry.

Like all great documentaries, The Overnighters is a terrific human drama, an emotionally draining tale often hard to watch. The story is about many damaged souls, and the film regards most of them -- even the ones who stand in selfish, narrow-minded opposition to Reinke -- with great empathy. This empathy is appropriate; after all, the complex issues the film presents are not simple matters of right and wrong. We're all afraid of something, The Overnighters says, and we should try to understand each other's fears rather than simply condemning them.

Much of The Overnighters' impact is thanks to Moss's intimate and completely observational filmmaking style. He shot the film himself; therefore, he's all but invisible, training his camera tightly on his subjects and taking no particular point of view on the stories they tell. The result is a stark and unblinking look at personal and economic downfall. The workers' stories are those we hear all too often -- heartbreaking tales of chronic unemployment, drug use, childhood neglect and abuse, long prison sentences for petty offenses, and all the suffering that is part and parcel of poverty in today's America.

The Overnighters has been compared to The Grapes of Wrath; the comparison is apt, for all the parallels between John Steinbeck's classic Great Depression-era novel and Moss's Great Recession-era film. Both works involve desperate pilgrimages of families hoping for another chance at prosperity. (Most of the men arrive in Williston alone, but many have families in tow, which complicates things even more.) Both works also have a common theme: In any period of economic upheaval, compassion and a sense of community are vital to survival. Another disheartening parallel: The Overnighters shows us that the poor are no less vilified today than they were during the Great Depression. Then as now, we would rather blame the poor than help them.

Great documentaries are common; I've seen a dozen or so this year. The Overnighters, however, is astonishing -- not only as a masterful, timely and timeless look at a moment in American history, but for other reasons I can't discuss (or even hint at) without lessening the film's impact. These reasons are why The Overnighters is one of the year's best and most compelling films, a powerful documentary not to be missed.