Boom and Bust: The Overnighters

by |
10/08/2014 4:00 AM |

The Overnighters
Directed by Jesse Moss

So, how broken is America? Though the film changes shape more than once after establishing its topical hook, the first twenty minutes of The Overnighters are comprehensively harrowing. At Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota, “the overnighters” are the men sleeping on cots and in hallways, and in cars and RVs in the parking lot, as the region’s fracking boom—“people with felonies getting a hundred grand a year,” a man avers on a phone call back home—draws unskilled workers, from all across a recession-plagued nation, to a rural city without the infrastructure or willpower to accommodate them.

“Socialism is UnAmerican,” reads a banner, incongruously, on one of the neo-Okie’s trailers, and indeed Pastor Jay Reinke, the man behind the Overnighters program, struggles against general anti-migrant-labor sentiment, manifest as both angry outbursts and a proposed RV ban, as Williston works out its conflicted feelings about the industry propping up its local economy, and stripping its resources. At Overnigthers, background checks are administered by a reformed convict, while Pastor Jay advises new arrivals to cut their hair (“Jesus didn’t have our neighbors”). Issues such as the environmental cost of the honest work so coveted by the overnighters, and the temptations of meth and alcohol, are alluded to sufficiently to make one wish that director Jesse Moss had explored them more, but this is understandable given the direction the film goes instead.

The Overnighters retains a sense of its process, in which Moss set out to make a social-issue documentary and found another subject while shooting. While a few of the overnighters find employment, allowing Moss a narrative through-line for Willistion’s fool’s-gold-rush, Pastor Jay becomes the very personal face of the film’s consideration of social responsibility. His dedication to “service” extends as far as letting a registered sex offender live in his home, without the knowledge of church elders (partly to keep him out of the church, where he’d be more visible; his wife and children support the decision), and becoming increasingly isolated in the community. A portrait emerges of a flawed man (“I don’t say no very well”) struggling to live up to his ideals, and to live with their costs.

The film is also interesting as a case study in documentary practice and ethics, for more reasons that the deftness with which Moss manages his shift in focus. Moss shot in Williston for around one week per month for sixteen months (often sleeping in Concordia Lutheran himself), and seems to have stayed true to actual chronology while shaping a storyline from a wealth of story data (we don’t see Pastor Jay turn anyone away until well into the film—how accurate is that?). Though it occurred after the film’s premiere, enough time has elapsed between now and the arrest on trafficking charges of Keith Graves, the sex offender who lives with the Reinkes, that Moss should have added an end-title card. But the director does admirably well in integrating and foreshadowing an “… and on that bombshell” ending that came to him late in the process, and left him with no clean way of fulfilling his obligations to his subjects and his audience. Unlike many documentaries pushing comparably hot buttons, he Overnighters’s form will remain worth discussing when (if?) some of the urgency of its content burns off.

Opens October 10 at IFC Center