At a festival where the unexpected has become expected, few films may prove as subversive as “The Overnighters,” a documentary that would appear at first to be one of the many appeals to social action that inundate the festival every year and slowly but surely becomes something else entirely.
From its opening shot, it rests on the shoulders of Pastor Jay Reinke, a genial reverend who has opened the doors to his church in Williston, North Dakota to the influx of broke out-of-towners who have come seeking jobs in the allegedly robust oil industry that has opened up in town since fracking freed up untapped natural resources. However, from director Jesse Moss’ vantage point, Williston is flooded by desperate men more than oil, many flowing directly to the Concordia Lutheran Church where Reinke allows cots to be set up in the hallways and RVs and trailers to be parked outside so the men don’t have to sleep on the streets.
While Reinke’s generosity is boundless, perhaps too much so as he begins to let the would-be homeless crowd into his own home with his family when the church becomes too full, the town as a whole is less hospitable, particularly after a school teacher is murdered with two “Overnighters” suspected and Reinke’s flock grows to include sex offenders. The city council wants them out, Reinke’s native congregation is thinning and though the pastor’s family believes as strongly as their patriarch that they’re doing the Lord’s work, it is clear Reinke begins to favor spending more time with the men he helps than his own flesh and blood.
The first third of “The Overnighters” paints a picture of unemployment unlike anything I can recall on film, vividly detailing the frustration and uncertainty of people looking for any opportunity, many well past the point of asking for a second or 22nd chance. Moss hones in on a handful of the unemployed that Reinke attempts to get back on their feet, a collection that runs the gamut in terms of age and background, as well as gratitude for what the pastor does for them, a few angered by being kicked out of their living quarters so newer tenants can move in, a great irony that isn’t left unnoticed by the film as you see the community of Williston mobilize around them to protect what little is theirs.
Yet it’s once “The Overnighters” asks whether Reinke is serving himself, rather than the men he helps or even God that the film becomes something special. With the strength of the film’s first half, it’s likely most filmmakers would’ve been inclined to use the plight of the Overnighters to make a broader point about the lack of social mobility. But having established that within this small town, Moss goes where the story takes him as Reinke’s altruism increasingly appears to be an exercise in futility, chasing lost causes and threatening to become one himself.
Moss and editor Jeff Gilbert have a remarkable character on their hands in Reinke and do well to reveal him slowly, despite the pastor’s seeming openness to any and all who approach him. Coming off at first as gregarious leader given to bear hugs and tearful addresses, his faith in a higher power as unshakeable as his faith in himself is not, a conflict that comes to bear in the film’s dizzying final 20 minutes, a sequence of events that unloads revelations at a rapid clip.
Some of these developments may be forecast a little too much with voiceover while others would likely benefit from more time to set in, yet in depicting Reinke’s increasingly fragile mental state, the quickened pace proves exhilarating. It’s a high that continues well after “The Overnighters” is over with all the ideas it presents about being a person of faith, either in terms of religion or in an America that may no longer hold up as a land of opportunity. With Moss’ clear-eyed examination, it’s beyond belief in every way.
“The Overnighters” does not yet have U.S. distribution. It will play at the Sundance Film Festival on January 18th at the Prospector Square Theatre at 8:30 a.m. and the Salt Lake City Library at 9 p.m., January 21st at noon at the Sundance Resort Screening Room, January 22nd at the Library Center Theatre at 8:45 p.m., and January 24th at the Redstone Cinema 1 at 9:30 p.m.