Sundance Film Review: ‘The Overnighters’
The difficulties of helping one’s fellow man in post-recession America are scrutinized with heartrending intimacy in “The Overnighters,” director Jesse Moss’ powerful documentary portrait of a North Dakota town that has seen a massive influx of aspiring oil-field workers in recent years. Our entry point into this modern-day Steinbeckian parable is through Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor who decided to open his church doors to provide these laborers with shelter, and who becomes as rich and thorny a film subject as any of the issues examined here: the challenge of community, the limits of compassion and charity, and, above all, the uncertainty of the future. With critical support, this tough-minded, admirably unresolved film should have no trouble courting further festival play and arthouse attention.
Since the controversial technology known as fracking was introduced there in 2008, North Dakota has become the nation’s second largest oil-producing state (second only to Texas) and has witnessed an appreciable spike in employment and population. The unlikely epicenter of this rapid growth is the city of Williston, located in an especially oil-rich region in the western part of the state, where people pour in from all over the country in search of work. Whether they find it or not, many of them seek shelter at the nearby Concordia Lutheran Church; setting up camp beds and sleeping bags around the building, these migrant workers — most of them men — form a makeshift community where compensatory donations are appreciated but not required, though church attendance is strongly encouraged.
“It does amaze me that giving people floor space is provocative,” Reinke muses early on, a humanizing moment that provides a sense of his unassuming hospitality as well as his disarming, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor. For Reinke, serving the community is a simple matter of will, determination and common sense. Not everyone else agrees; members of the congregation begin to feel unsettled by the presence of so many unfamiliar faces, some of whom have criminal records. When a Montana schoolteacher is found dead in Williston in 2012, allegedly at the hands of two men from Colorado, the city’s natural distrust of outsiders is further inflamed.
But Reinke remains an outspoken champion of the Overnighters program, whether attending city council meetings to protest a proposed ban on RVs in the neighborhood, or going door-to-door and inviting the locals to get to know the strangers in their midst. He acknowledges early on that much of his ministry comes at the expense of time with his supportive but long-suffering wife, Andrea, and their children, a truth that will become only more pronounced as the film progresses.
Moss (who previously directed the documentaries “Full Battle Rattle” and “Speedo”) filmed by himself in Williston between 2012 and 2013, no doubt realizing that a patient, observational, one-man-crew approach would be the easiest way to win trust and gain access to the Overnighters’ stories. Their experiences are revealed in stray fragments (edited coherently if judiciously by Jeff Gilbert); among those we meet are Alan Mezo, an ex-con from Spokane, Wash., who has since cleaned up his act and helps Reinke run the Overnighters program; Keegan Edwards, from Antigo, Wis., who’s trying to support his girlfriend and baby son; and Keith Graves, a truck driver and family man from Los Angeles.