*This review was originally published at The Film Experience.
Jesse Moss spent more than a year in the North Dakotan town of Williston following a news story he had found about mass immigration to the oil rich area. When the practice of fracking began to turn the fortunes of the Midwestern state around after recession, thousands of men flocked there from all the around the U.S. in search of a new life. The sudden, unsustainable upsurge in population caused tensions to grow between the local residents and the itinerant workers, fuelled by reports of theft and sexual abuse that were alleged to be committed by the “overnighters”.
In the midst of this, pastor Jay Reinke of the Concorida Lutheran Church is opening the doors of the church (and its parking lot) to these men and allowing them to sleep there at nights. His congregation feels uneasy about the presence of the nomads. The more reserved church members complain ostensibly about the mess and chaos left over by allowing more people in the small space than it was designed for, or bring up fire hazard issues. The more outspoken members mention the past records of the temporary workers, some with felony charges, others with their names listed on the sex offenders list.
Christianity itself seems to be at stake. Reinke is a smart man, alert to the challenges of the conflicts his decision has created in the community. He questions others’ faith while his own begins to shake, he asks them to redefine their Christianity, but he ignores his own family the more he loves his neighbours. Helping others takes a toll and the community moves no closer to accepting their guests with open arms. One man, afforded the cloak of anonymity by the camera’s placement, calls the nomadic workers “trash.” Reinke understands the steep hill he has to climb to warm the locals’ hearts to the misfits. When he asks one worker to cut his long hair short to look better in the eyes of the community, then man asks whether Jesus had to cut his hair in response. Reinke cleverly retorts: “Jesus didn’t have our neighbours.” But it takes more than awareness on Reinke’s part to combat the challenges.
Reinke’s kindness and his stubborn insistence in his ways make him appear at once childish, naive, heroic and delusional, but it’s often hard not to empathize with his outlook. The itinerant workers are an embodiment of the American Dream gone wrong, men and women against whom all the powers of the world have seemingly conspired. One man makes a point of clarifying that he is not homeless. “I have a home in another town” he says, but he can’t make any money over there. The dream has become a nightmare, a collective failure for a country whose lower classes have been consigned to considering sleeping in parking lots and leaving their families in search of another elusive dream.
The Overnighters is painful to watch, in significant part because despite the large cast of characters that it considers, it never loses touch with them as individuals. They are not a disenfranchised mass, and the film isn’t a political rhetoric about caring for the poor. They are human beings with lives and stories and pains that transcend beyond their misfortunes and Moss’s greatest accomplishment is that he conveys that in spite of the limited time he spends with each person. Reinke, too, is more than the strangely giving man that we meet early in the film. As the film progresses, he becomes increasingly conflicted, partly because of the community’s pressure, but more intriguingly because the film’s process of exposition unearths personal problems he had been hiding for years. He is a lot more than meets the eye, in positive and negative ways, and in that regard, he embodies what The Overnighters is really about: a complex, richly layered and intimate portrait of people that digs deeper than their limiting, public persona.