The Overnighters (2014)
Editor’s Note: The theatrical release of Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters begins today, November 7th, in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox.
We live in a world beset by fear. People are resentful, frightened, suspicious and insular, and as frustrating as that behavior is, sometimes, it’s entirely understandable. But when that fear becomes hatred and illogical, and when towns start passing ordinances in an attempt to stop people feeding the poor or helping the homeless, many would agree that the situation has gone too far.
Soon The Overnighters becomes another film, however. As the weeks progress, we see Reinke’s methods are troubling at times. His loyalties can be fickle, his judgments hypocritical, and his anger uncontrolled.
As we learn in filmmaker Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters, one such ordinance was introduced in the small town of Williston, North Dakota, and not that long ago. Crafted as a response to pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church and his Overnighters program, which allowed the homeless to spend the night in their own cars on church property, the ordinance sought to make it illegal to sleep in your car. The Overnighters follows the beleaguered Reinke, who chose to practice the tenets of Christianity to the best of his ability, as he fights not only the town but his own congregation. These are church-going folk who express concerns about everything from a candy wrapper left behind by an Overnighter, to worries that the homeless might take jobs at fast food joints, making them, by one member of the congregation’s estimation, a useless member of society.
But Reinke is, like all human beings, a complicated creature. So many people have poured into areas like Williston after hearing that the mining and fracking industries are hiring at upwards of twenty dollars per hour, but they don’t realize there are more people than jobs, and housing is scarce, and the towns are small. Tensions soar and Reinke is caught in the middle; his emotions run high, and we can sympathize.
Soon The Overnighters becomes another film, however. As the weeks progress, we see Reinke’s methods are troubling at times. His loyalties can be fickle, his judgments hypocritical, and his anger uncontrolled. Much is hidden when perhaps it shouldn’t be, resentments surface, there’s bad behavior on all sides, and a late reveal puts everything that we’ve just seen into a completely different light.
In The Overnighters, the lack of detail doesn’t create dots so much as vague, amorphous blobs that accidentally overlap.
This reveal, which won’t be a surprise to some, is undoubtedly fascinating. But it’s also somewhat vague, just as much of the rest of the film is. Any good documentary will be, in part, a game of connect-the-dots, where lines are drawn and patterns, sometimes complex, begin to emerge. In The Overnighters, the lack of detail doesn’t create dots so much as vague, amorphous blobs that accidentally overlap. There is a consistent mixing of issues of race, class, sexuality and religion with duplicity, blackmail, pederasty and crime, without a lot of attention paid by the filmmakers to how these issues combine. Implications are made that are perhaps accidental, perhaps not, but definitely troubling.
The people of Williston, whether residents or new arrivals hoping for their chance at a good job, are the stars of this show. There is not a single person in The Overnighters that is not interesting in their own right, and Reinke, as the central figure, is complicated and captivating. Less so are the film’s reliance on antiquated indie documentary tropes, such as one of the documentary subjects playing his own soulful music, and the obligatory camera swoop past dilapidated houses on the wrong side of town. But The Overnighters transcends its somewhat flat affect with an adept examination of the personal, the political, and the necessary fluidity of a public persona.
The Overnighters transcends its somewhat flat affect with an adept examination of the personal, the political, and the necessary fluidity of a public persona.