By: Addison Wylie
2014 has released plenty of exceptional documentaries, but Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters is unlike any of them.
The Overnighters is a remarkable film about the human spirit and the struggle to maintain compassion and beliefs within a critical community. Exercising good faith isn’t always a walk in the park when the odds are intimidatingly stacked and judgement is looming.
North Dakota’s economy is booming, which has brought plenty of pros and cons to the city of Williston. Many opportunities have opened up for those seeking steady work and a hopeful future for their family, but the overflow of migrant workers have locals feeling anxious about the ambling strangers.
Jay Reinke, a gentle Pastor, holds a devout stature that earns him respect in Williston. However, even his kindness couldn’t protect him from the displeased feedback of those who watched him turn a church into a makeshift home for travellers who have no place to go. These thankful men are called “The Overnighters”.
Reinke has to constantly reinforce to those around him that these good deeds eventually help those in need. He’s specific about his screening process and he shows love towards the helpless while guiding them in a positive direction. He – along with volunteers – are very adamant about their guests learning to attach themselves to traits that will earn them success and employment.
Meanwhile, faithful Christians feel that while the gesture is mighty, it ultimately soils their definition of home. They don’t feel comfortable when newcomers are aimlessly wandering around the church’s services, and many see some inhabitants as squatters milking good intentions. Bleak newspaper headlines describing crimes carried out by visitors also provide no help for Pastor Reinke.
All these variables make for a very slippery slope, and The Overnighters does a magnificent job capturing the torn turmoil and the split in hospitality. Everyone is trying to find a line in the sand separating sympathy and gratuity. Williston is fearing for their safety, while a few of the guests try and disguise their greed.
Reinke knows that there are people out there who will take advantage of “The Overnighters” program, but those who find generosity and growth in the opportunity is more than enough to keep the Pastor fighting against naysayers.
He’s sweet and can usually read people well during one-on-ones. On the other hand, he opens his doors to just about anyone looking for inspiration. The Pastor even admits he has difficulty saying “no”, and that he finds similar broken qualities in himself that he sees in these men. He relates; which is why if he can’t find floorspace for newcomers, he’ll offer the Church’s parking lot and even his home. The Overnighters is very much a character study in that way.
The Overnighters is also the most polished documentary I’ve seen this year. Jesse Moss inserts a subtle style amongst his interviews, and is more than able to be professionally intimate with his subjects without spinning anything on a bias.
There are momentary dams in the film’s narrative where it feels as if Moss may be over-punctuating the loneliness and the debate between what constitutes as good hearted and civil, but every arc Moss allows his film to travel on is astonishingly poignant.
Prepare yourself to see The Overnighters appear on many year-end “Top Ten” lists. Hopefully, it earns itself a spot in the running for an Oscar next year. It’s a timely pick that is heartfelt as it is merciless.