The Overnighters Dir. Jesse Moss

[Drafthouse Films; 2014]

Styles: religious, documentary
Others: Harlan County USA

Less than a decade ago, the town of Williston, North Dakota was unremarkable, except to those within or around it. Then oil happened, and an influx of hopeful workers, from all walks of American life, followed. The promise of six-figure rig work was (and remains) a good lure for the ones who have few choices in a drab economy. “Anyone can get work in 48 hours,” some say. Sounds nice, but there’s always a catch. Jobs may be aplenty, but affordable housing doesn’t come as easily. Hopes deflate, despair enters, but a local pastor, willing to practice what he preaches, has a solution. The Overnighters, Jesse Moss’s award-winning documentary, unflinchingly looks at the solution, only to prove how true a cliche like “no good deed goes unpunished” can be.

A man of remarkable faith, Pastor Jay Reinke’s solution was to house the newly homeless in the hallways and spare rooms of the conservative Concordia Lutheran Church. Though a charitable act descended from scripture, the congregation grew exponentially distant from it over the program’s two-year lifespan. It’s one thing to say “yes, love thy neighbor,” and “sure, God’s house is open to all,” but these old ideals, no matter how well meaning, face an even more powerful adversary: fear. Sexual offender lists become more available. Crime rises. Williston’s townspeople come to represent American nationalism and xenophobia when the weary and starving outsiders crash their town.

Through it all, Reinke cheerfully welcomes the downtrodden into God’s (and, in one case, his own) house. He faces moments that would cripple a weaker man. He’s threatened with violence, public smearing, and household turmoil. His congregation slowly drifts apart. He endures frustration and despair. How does he vent? He gets out of his car and gleefully waves to a passing Amtrak. For better or worse, Pastor Reinke wants to be the Good Guy, and the world is not kind to Good Guys. He struggles to keep himself collected, even in the face of muck-raking journalists, because it’s his job to turn the other cheek. As for the migrants, they’re a little more open. They’re frustrated, too, because their own lives are on the line. These once-hopeful breadwinners face injury, relapse, rejection, and estrangement. Checkered histories catch up. Some lose their coveted temporary housing. Though these men differ in vocation, they are united by the struggle to keep their vocations composed; Reinke must remain spiritually strong while the rig workers must exercise their brawn. If they can’t, where else can they go?

Much of The Overnighters’ remarkability stems from how familiar it all seems. This storied narrative has appeared before, often in well-meaning but hacky Christian-produced films: local leader sees a problem, tries to fix it, resistance is met, and no matter the outcome, there’s always a lesson to be learned. Jesse Moss captures a deconstruction-in-motion, as the hallmarks of inspirational stories continuously shrivel. Ideals, in the end, don’t agree with reality. Certainly, there’s a lesson to be learned from The Overnighters, but it’s a brutal one, and not exactly the kind viewers would expect or even want. Moss made solo trips to Williston to sleep in the church and harness some filmic oil for himself. To that end, each trip was a matter of “right place at the right time,” even if the scenarios couldn’t have been more wrong. Raw human drama dominates the screen, and as hard as it is to endure, it’s difficult to look away.

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