There’s a place roughly 90 minutes into Jesse Moss’ “The
Overnighters” where, if the film had ended there, it would have been one of the
year’s great documentaries. But in its last 10 minutes, something very
surprising and unexpected happens, and what had been great becomes truly
This review will not describe that climactic episode, but
only note that it’s at once very different from, yet strangely in keeping with,
what has come before. In one sense, “The Overnighters” offers a
fascinating and moving exploration of a perennial national theme, which has
been an even greater concern since the beginning of the Great Recession: work. Yet, because this is America, that subject has a strange way of
getting intertwined with another characteristic obsession: sex.
The documentary’s setting, Williston, North Dakota, is a
typical American small town that has become very atypical due to the oil boom
that brings hopeful would-be workers streaming in from all over the country.
There is money to be made here, to be sure, but many of those arriving are on
the edge of desperation, can’t find work immediately (or at all) and have
nowhere to sleep. That’s what prompts Pastor Jay Reinke to persuade the
congregation of the Concordia Lutheran Church to open their parking lot and
parish house to many unfortunates who need shelter.
These “overnighters” sleep in the hallways and their cars.
The passionate, ever-buoyant Reinke rouses them in the morning with hymns and
tries to tend to as many of their needs as he can, especially in steering them
toward work that will allow them to pay for lodging (the costs of housing have
gone sky-high due to the oil boom). His work is a striking example of a man
trying to live by the ideals of Christian charity, and many in his congregation
seem to appreciate that, but the Overnighters program also strains their
While following Reinke’s work in the church, the film also
provides affecting, insightful portraits of some of the men who come to
Williston hoping to improve their lot. Their need and desire for work is almost
palpable. Some seem to have seen lots of tough times, yet there’s one fresh-faced
18-year-old named Keegan who’s just starting out and is lucky enough to score a
good job that allows him to bring his girlfriend and baby son out. But even
that doesn’t solve everything. His girlfriend doesn’t like being cooped up in a
small apartment, so she goes back to Wisconsin, where Keegan’s father complains
that their small town offers no opportunities to any young person.
That sense of an America where hard times have come to roost
is ever-present in “The Overnighters,” and it reveals the dark flipside to the
news reports of boom times on the plains of North Dakota. And, of course, the
migration this boom occasioned is nothing new: in a sense, the tale the film
tells is the same that brought generations of immigrants through Ellis Island
and across the continent during the Gold Rush and Great Depression.
All of those earlier episodes upset established communities
while causing the creation of ad hoc new ones, and that’s what happens here.
The people of Williston and the members of Reinke’s congregation generally seem
to want to do the right thing, but the influx of strangers disrupts a once
comfortable way of life, and soon there are efforts to roll back or reverse the
kind of hospitality Reinke advocates.
Likewise, there are tensions within the ad hoc community at
the church. Though Reinke seems to be the most sincere and dedicated of
pastors, his intensity–and perhaps something beneath it–rub some the wrong
way. In particular, there are two men who become close to him–one serves as his
deputy, the other lives briefly at his house–and end up seeing him as an
enemy and denouncing him bitterly.
One small flaw in the film is that not enough is shown of
these men’s previous interactions with Reinke for us to understand the reasons
for their antipathy. Yet the consequences are severe: One man tells the local
paper that some of the Overnighters are registered sex offenders, and Reinke
allowed one to stay at his house, even though he has three teenage daughters
and a son. (The offender in question, it should be noted, reportedly earned his
status by sleeping with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 18, and Reinke
had the support of his remarkable wife and kids in this decision as in his work
with the Overnighters generally.)
In one striking scene, a newspaper reporter chases Reinke
down a street bombarding him with questions about the sex offenders, and the
running, upset pastor can’t bring himself to say anything. Later, though, he
says this could be the end of his ministry. It’s not, but the specter of sexual
predation is one factor that undermines the foundation of the Overnighters
program. This scene also foreshadows the film’s amazing ending.
While “The Overnighters” has the feel of an epic, given what
an expansive slice of America’s current economic experience it ponders, it’s
also a very intimate one. Moss stayed with the Overnighters himself (partly
because he couldn’t afford Williston’s inflated hotel prices) and was granted
an extraordinary degree of access to the Reinke family. This makes for a film
as rich emotionally as it is enlightening regarding the challenges facing
people struggling to make a living.