One would never expect a documentary to operate like a thriller—why manipulate the story when reality can be surprising enough?—but some of the best tackle twists and turns that even their filmmakers couldn’t have predicted. The Overnighters is a perfect case in point.
How a film handles those developments depends on the filmmaker, of course—think of the Capturing the Friedmans, Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father, My Kid Could Paint That or the Paradise Lost trilogy—and not everyone is going to agree with the approach taken by director Jesse Moss on The Overnighters. For some, opting to foreshadow a big reveal and then concealing it until the film’s final moments might feel unnecessarily coy, or—worse—as exploitive as something out of a Paul Haggis arc. And yet, as attention-grabbing as the film’s final few minutes are, they’re not what make The Overnighters so worth seeing.
If your interest is already piqued, now is the time to learn that the bulk of The Overnighters is about Williston, North Dakota. It may not be the most happening city in the U.S., but it is one of the fastest growing thanks to the controversial fracking boom and subsequent influx of jobs. Thankfully, Moss leaves the fracking debate for other documentaries to handle. In turn, he focuses on the economically challenged men who seek work in the area, and the harsh realities they find instead.
Rather than the instant riches and six-figure salaries afforded a lucky few, scores of job seekers are left to fend for themselves, living out of cars and alienated by a less-than-welcoming community. The notable exception is Lutheran pastor Jay Reinke, who happily throws open the doors of his Williston church with a housing program dubbed “The Overnighters.” Without the consent of his congregation, Reinke invites these desperate pilgrims to make the building their temporary (or semi-permanent) residence. Others are welcome to camp in the parking lot in cars or RVs.
For Reinke, this radical act of charity is simply the Christian thing to do. For many of his parishioners, it’s an uncomfortable intrusion on their spiritual sanctuary—especially when the local paper prints a list of registered sex offenders in the area and a few of those names are Overnighters. One even lives in Reinke’s own home, with the approval of Reinke’s wife and three children.
Moss balances miniature portraits of a handful of Overnighters (including an All-American young man who initially seems to have struck gold in Williston; a rambunctious meth-head who doesn’t believe he’ll ever get a fair shake; and that aforementioned sex offender house guest) with the larger portrait of Reinke. As a filmmaker, Moss enjoys uncomfortably intimate access, no doubt accentuated by the fact that he served as a one-man crew for most of production, living among the Overnighters and filming every day alone with a single camera.
The Overnighters’ stories are almost universally heartbreaking: tender reflections on life in the Great Recession, on the quotidian of a typical American struggling against a problem that seems too big to comprehend on any small, personal scale. Yet, Reinke’s story is something altogether more complicated—something, even, confounding. What exactly motivates him to keep the Overnighters program going, possibly sacrificing his church and his job? Altruism? Egomania? Why does he feel so connected to the hardship—be it addiction, persecution or isolation—of each Overnighter?
While Moss didn’t set out with the specific goal of uncovering any sort of obvious explanation in the pastor’s actions, the film’s final moment—and practically the whole documentary itself—pivots on a bombshell confession from Reinke. For some viewers it will speak volumes. But then the movie simply…stops. The risk of ending exactly when a whole new mess of questions arise is that such a conclusion might encourage the audience to provide their own answers, potentially psychoanalyzing a man in a way the film rather deliberately avoids.
Moss seems OK with this, because the experience of The Overnighters is about so much more than just what does or doesn’t drive Reinke. It’s about what’s happening in America right now, how we can have as many abstract discussions about economics, the environment, crime and punishment, and religion as we want, but that these abstract ideas have real impacts on real people. Reinke’s confession may act like a manipulative narrative move, but it’s more a stark reminder that the individual stories that drive us truly matter under the shadow of our nation’s massive ills. The Overnighters is the kind of film that asks us to forget abstraction—to instead remember the details.
Director: Jesse Moss
Starring: Jay Reinke, Andrea Reinke, Shelly Shultz, Alan Mezo, Keegan Edwards
Release Date: Oct. 10, 2014