The Overnighters: Sundance Review

The Overnighters Sundance Film Still - H 2014

The Overnighters Sundance Film Still - H 2014

A scenario with present-day echoes of  “The Grapes of Wrath” yields perceptive insights into the way we view outsiders.

Jesse Moss’ riveting documentary follows the migration of workers lured to North Dakota by the oil rush, and the uneasy welcome that awaits them there, with one man determined to be the exception.

The Great Recession has given rise to an infinite number of shattering new American narratives, and documentarian Jesse Moss has locked onto an uncommonly affecting one in The Overnighters. An evocative real-life Steinbeckian tale of a frontier boomtown and the desperate souls who flock there praying for a fresh start, this is a penetrating examination of issues pertaining to poverty, class, social stigmatization, religion and even sexuality. Compassion and community are key themes of a sharply observed film that provides a sobering illustration of the tenuousness of stability in 21st century America.

The jumping off point for Moss was the discovery that since hydraulic fracturing technology was introduced in 2008, the resulting oil boom has made North Dakota the country’s fastest growing economy. Driven from their home states by soaring unemployment, bankruptcy and foreclosures, tens of thousands of men have migrated there for well-paid jobs in the oil fields, often forced to separate from their families.

Moss leaves aside the controversies surrounding fracking for others to debate. He also stays away from the widely reported explosion of macho roustabout behavior in an area where the ratio of men to women has warped radically, fueling domestic and sexual violence and prostitution.

Instead The Overnighters explores a humanistic drama about men who have fallen through the cracks and are scrambling to get back in the system. Moss settles on an ideal microcosm in the small town of Williston, where the population has doubled since 2010. While jobs are plentiful, housing is scarce; rents have tripled or quadrupled in recent years. Given that a local address is an oil company employment requirement, the catch-22 situation leaves the more vulnerable of the new arrivals in limbo, sleeping in cars or RVs or on a church floor.

Pastor Jay Reinke is the film’s fascinating central figure, converting the Concordia Lutheran Church each night into a makeshift shelter despite mounting opposition from his congregation, neighbors, town officials and the media. The pastor’s wife is supportive of her husband’s programs and willing to open her home to his trail of down-and-outs. But even she suggests a degree of forbearance, saying, “Hopefully at some point we’ll transition back to how it used to be.”

Moss captures Reinke’s intense connection to the men by focusing primarily on a half-dozen of these “overnighters,” who stay for varying lengths of time. They range from an 18-year-old with a girlfriend and baby son back in his economically crippled Wisconsin home town, to an older man from Spokane, WA, whose past includes alcoholism, meth addiction and a 16-year prison term. Their stories provide wrenching glimpses of the American Dream constantly expanding and contracting according to shifting circumstances.

Commenting on the caring pastor’s refugee influx, one native of the prairies over-dramatizes her fears for the town, saying, “They rape, pillage and burn, and then they leave.” But the film refrains from taking an overtly judgmental position on the community’s resistance, underscoring how people’s attachment to their church as a safe, familiar environment will instinctively make them feel threatened by an invasion of strangers.

At one point a longtime churchgoer, apparently speaking for many, says they feel used by these men encroaching on their place of worship. But Moss implicitly suggests it’s the men who are being used by towns and corporations that welcome their labor and compensate them financially for it, but give no thought to how the least resilient of the outsiders are expected to live. A single shot of a massive Halliburton warehouse speaks volumes next to images of workers in trailers or unfurnished shacks.

Reinke’s failure to consult the congregation before ushering men with shady pasts into his flock (church attendance being a gently enforced condition of lodging) seems a poor leadership decision. Reports of an uptick in crime feed anxiety, but the real challenge surfaces when the local newspaper publishes a list of registered sex offenders, including more than one overnighter. The escalating complications as the pastor lurches erratically into damage-control mode, alienating some of the men he has helped, give the film dramatic texture as well as moral and ethical complexity.

The filmmaker was a one-man crew during shooting, and yet aside from an amusing moment when a campsite manager assaults him and his camera with a broomstick, his presence is almost undetectable. This allows for what seems like absolute candor from the subjects.

Moss traces the enormous personal cost to Reinke of his crusade, but he avoids depicting him with a Mother Teresa-type gloss. Reinke considers his mistakes and flaws, admitting the guilt of neglect toward his family while openly questioning whether his actions are as selfless as he would like to believe. “What are my motives here?” he asks. When an angered man accuses Reinke of being a deceitful egomaniac, the reverberations of that earlier self-examination return.

Many will anticipate a confessional revelation that comes toward the end of the film, and the director leaves himself open to charges of being manipulative by withholding this information to deploy it for climactic purposes. The development opens up further questions that remain unanswered. It’s understandable that Moss would pull back out of respect for Reinke, though the inclusion of an emotional scene with his wife is sure to make many people uncomfortable, even if she must have signed off on it.

However, irrespective of any qualms that surface, the turnaround in the pastor’s life gives the final section considerable pathos, adding to the film’s powerful sense of human precariousness. To use his own description, Reinke is no less “broken” than the men he has cared for and sheltered. The increasing focus on the pastor’s issues reshapes this into a different movie than the one Moss appears to have set out to make, about the sociological impact of the oil boom. But watching as real-life characters and events evolve in divergent directions is one of the rewards of superior documentary filmmaking, and Reinke's difficulties do ultimately serve to illustrate the ripple effect of the big-picture story.

Fluidly edited by Jeff Gilbert, and shot by Moss with haunting intimacy, The Overnighters almost casually establishes a lingering sense of place, juxtaposing natural beauty against the blight of industry. The score by Brooklyn musician T. Griffin is also highly atmospheric, blending sounds that fit the region – guitar, banjo, harmonica – with somber electronics that reflect the darker veins being explored in this boomtown chronicle.

The film is non-fiction storytelling of remarkable nuance. A lovely touch on the end credits is a series of talking heads showing men who simply say their name and where they come from. They serve as a reminder of the vast sea of humanity passing through this place, and the heartbreaking range of experience these men bring as they grasp for a life of dignity.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

Production companies: Mile End Films, in association with Al Di La Films, Impact Partners

Director-writer: Jesse Moss

Producers: Jesse Moss, Amanda McBaine

Director of photography: Jesse Moss

Music: T. Griffin

Editor: Jeff Gilbert

Sales: Film Sales Co.

No rating, 101 minutes