In the opening scenes of “The Overnighters,” you follow a small-town pastor as he goes room to room in a single-story building, singing hymns and waking men strewn in a variety of beds, cots and even cars in the parking lot outside.
The men are looking for work in the booming North Dakota oil fields, but because of their checkered backgrounds and the price of housing, they are homeless.
Their wake-up call comes from Pastor Jay Reinke, who runs both the Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota, and the makeshift “Overnighters” program that is giving these men a place to stay while they look for work.
Based on this information, you assume that you are in for 90 minutes of a sweet-but-shallow documentary on a kindhearted, small-town pastor who is making a difference for a few downtrodden men in need.
You assume that, but you are wrong.
There are a lot of “good” documentaries out there that live or die on their compelling content. There’s no real story, and nothing all that remarkable about their craft. They are routine.
The good news is that “The Overnighters” is unpredictable. The bad news is that its dark and harsh turns are often heartbreaking, if not crushing. “The Overnighters” is a powerful film, but it will not leave you feeling all fuzzy inside.
Soon after we are introduced to Reinke and his program, we learn that not everyone in town is so enthusiastic about the pastor’s efforts to be a good Samaritan. Many of the program’s beneficiaries have criminal backgrounds, and everyone from the local congregation to the folks in the surrounding neighborhood to Pastor Reinke’s own family seem uneasy with the arrangement.
One telling exchange injects some much-needed humor into the tension. Hoping to ease the concerns of his neighbors, Reinke tells one of his tenants he needs to cut his hair.
“Did Jesus have short hair?” the man asks defensively.
“Jesus didn’t have our neighbors,” responds Reinke.
In recent years, a refining process called fracking has turned North Dakota into a hot bed of big-money opportunity, and the lure of six-figure salaries has attracted more desperate souls than small towns like Williston can handle. Reinke started off by letting people stay in RVs and their cars in the church parking lot, then moved them into the church. Eventually, he started inviting a few “Overnighters” into his own home, downstairs from his wife and children.
Over the course of the documentary, unease turns into action. The City Council wants to pass a law forbidding anyone from staying in an RV for more than 28 days. The local paper is trying to expose that sex offenders are among those being housed at the church. What Reinke sees as a simple act of charity becomes a convoluted mess, and a gripping referendum on where to draw the line when it comes to serving your fellow-man.
It’s a powerful documentary because it’s so easily relatable. Reinke’s interactions with the program’s membership are at times frightening, and it is stunning to see some of his allies become bitter enemies when their pasts come back to haunt them.
Ultimately, “The Overnighters” is a portrait of its protagonist — the program is just a device to frame a fascinating character who veers between sympathy and naïve mania in his behavior. And without giving anything away, be advised: his story doesn’t reach its dramatic conclusion until the closing credits.
The film was written and directed by Jesse Moss, who remains absent throughout the course of the documentary and pretty much lets the story tell itself. Through his fly-on-the-wall style, we are on the front row for Reinke’s confrontations with a local reporter, a former program supervisor, and in one staggering scene late in the film, his own wife.
He makes sure to show the honesty and sincerity of the pastor, but also includes curious scenes, such as a moment where Reinke pulls over his vehicle and tells the crew to film him waving at a passing Amtrak train. In another amusing scene, an angry landlord comes after Reinke with a shotgun when he tries to pick up an RV he loaned out as part of the program.
If only the story could have maintained that lighthearted tone.
“The Overnighters” forces its viewers to consider their positions on a variety of probing moral questions, but it holds back enough to let the audience draw its own conclusions. It is provocative, but far from preachy. It is a sobering, cautionary tale, and one well worth watching.
“The Overnighters” is rated PG-13 for discussions of adult topics and some scattered profanity, including one or two muffled uses of the F-word.
Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. More of his work is at woundedmosquito.com.