The difficulties of helping one’s fellow man in post-recession America are scrutinized with heartrending intimacy in “The Overnighters,” director Jesse Moss’ powerful documentary portrait of a North Dakota town that has seen a massive influx of aspiring oil-field workers in recent years. Our entry point into this modern-day Steinbeckian parable is through Jay Reinke, a Lutheran pastor who decided to open his church doors to provide these laborers with shelter, and who becomes as rich and thorny a film subject as any of the issues examined here: the challenge of community, the limits of compassion and charity, and, above all, the uncertainty of the future. With critical support, this tough-minded, admirably unresolved film should have no trouble courting further festival play and arthouse attention.
Since the controversial technology known as fracking was introduced there in 2008, North Dakota has become the nation’s second largest oil-producing state (second only to Texas) and has witnessed an appreciable spike in employment and population. The unlikely epicenter of this rapid growth is the city of Williston, located in an especially oil-rich region in the western part of the state, where people pour in from all over the country in search of work. Whether they find it or not, many of them seek shelter at the nearby Concordia Lutheran Church; setting up camp beds and sleeping bags around the building, these migrant workers — most of them men — form a makeshift community where compensatory donations are appreciated but not required, though church attendance is strongly encouraged.
“It does amaze me that giving people floor space is provocative,” Reinke muses early on, a humanizing moment that provides a sense of his unassuming hospitality as well as his disarming, sometimes sarcastic sense of humor. For Reinke, serving the community is a simple matter of will, determination and common sense. Not everyone else agrees; members of the congregation begin to feel unsettled by the presence of so many unfamiliar faces, some of whom have criminal records. When a Montana schoolteacher is found dead in Williston in 2012, allegedly at the hands of two men from Colorado, the city’s natural distrust of outsiders is further inflamed.
But Reinke remains an outspoken champion of the Overnighters program, whether attending city council meetings to protest a proposed ban on RVs in the neighborhood, or going door-to-door and inviting the locals to get to know the strangers in their midst. He acknowledges early on that much of his ministry comes at the expense of time with his supportive but long-suffering wife, Andrea, and their children, a truth that will become only more pronounced as the film progresses.
Moss (who previously directed the documentaries “Full Battle Rattle” and “Speedo”) filmed by himself in Williston between 2012 and 2013, no doubt realizing that a patient, observational, one-man-crew approach would be the easiest way to win trust and gain access to the Overnighters’ stories. Their experiences are revealed in stray fragments (edited coherently if judiciously by Jeff Gilbert); among those we meet are Alan Mezo, an ex-con from Spokane, Wash., who has since cleaned up his act and helps Reinke run the Overnighters program; Keegan Edwards, from Antigo, Wis., who’s trying to support his girlfriend and baby son; and Keith Graves, a truck driver and family man from Los Angeles.
In a film concerned with the everyday fabric and texture of these men’s hard-scrabble lives, the primary source of narrative conflict is Reinke’s decision to move Graves, a registered sex offender, out of the church and into his own home — all the better to avoid the prying eyes of the Williston Herald, which has written a series of negative stories about the Overnighters program. But although Reinke and his family make clear they don’t consider Graves a threat, the move backfires, angering one of their other guests and only intensifying the media scrutiny — at which point “The Overnighters,” an initially inspiring portrait of one man truly living out the Christian mandate to love thy neighbor, becomes a veritable illustration of the notion that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
In ministering to others, Reinke repeatedly speaks from a place of personal brokenness and deep spiritual need, humbly identifying with the weary and heavy-laden. It is Moss’ accomplishment to probe the depths of that brokenness, in Reinke and in those he deals with; with startling emotional force, the film reveals how quickly the strongest bonds of friendship can be frayed and broken, and how a community presumably ruled by compassion and vulnerability can nonetheless breed resentment and betrayal. Even as the Overnighters program is attacked from without, it now threatens to destroy itself from within.
As Moss’ camera follows Reinke around Willingston — trying to evade a nosy reporter, sitting down with Graves for a discussion that quickly turns heated, and at one point having a gun pointed at him — the pastor becomes a figure of ever rougher and richer human dimensions. Never less than admirable in his conviction and willingness to serve those in need, he can also be overbearing, arrogant and harshly judgmental, or at least open himself up to accusations of such. It all builds to a startling climactic admission that leaves the viewer with no shortage of questions (the answers to which are somewhat frustratingly withheld), but also considerable insight into the mindset of a man whose altruistic impulses, and whose determination to accept people as they are, stem from deep personal wounds.
Lensed with a complete absence of frills that perfectly suits its honest, unvarnished tone, “The Overnighters” presents an indelible snapshot of a despairing moment in American history, as men abandon homes, families and dreams to stake their claim in an ever-shrinking land of opportunity. Parallels to the 19th-century gold rushes or the Dust Bowl migration of the ’30s are very much there for the taking, but Moss’ film is very much about how we live now — whether we choose to dwell in peace with or in fear of our neighbors, and whether we recognize that the fates of the affluent and the impoverished are inextricably bound together. Or, as Reinke himself says after hearing the poignant, painful testimony of a drifter who has come under his roof: “You and I are more alike than we are different.”