‘The Overnighters’ Film Festival Review
John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, told of the Joad family, migrant farmers who leave Oklahoma during the Great Depression. Their intent is to find a much better life in California. What they find there is an overabundance of tenant farmers all wanting the same thing-to be able to work, make good money, and to provide for their families. Jesse Moss’ documentary The Overnighters, draws immediate comparisons to Steinbeck’s novel of the disillusion of the American dream.
The Overnighters focuses on the community of Williston, North Dakota, a small community of approximately 18,000 that sits in the middle of the oil-rich portion of the state. This draws workers from throughout the country to this small town with dreams of making riches in the oilfields. Unfortunately, the job opportunities are slim, and affordable housing is even slimmer. These workers basically live and sleep in their vehicles. That is until a local pastor steps in to help.
Pastor Jay Reinke of the Concordia Lutheran Church comes up with a plan to help these workers, by allowing the church to become a dorm for the men and women and their vehicles to be parked in the church parking lot. Reinke even allows a couple of the men to sleep in his own home, where Reinke lives with his wife and three kids. What begins as Reinke’s beliefs of loving thy neighbor turns into a conflict of principles between the pastor and the townspeople of Williston, including his own congregation, as more and more drifters come to town to find work, turning the church and the surrounding area into a modern day Hooverville.
The pastor and the program ultimately come under fire when a local woman is found dead, and the two men suspected of the crime, participants of Reinke’s Overnighters program, are registered sex offenders. An investigation by the local newspaper shows a very significant rises in the number of registered sex offenders to the area, many using the church’s address as their place of residence. This pushes Pastor Reinke to ultimately decide if what he has done in the name of God has helped or hurt his community.
The Overnighters is powerful storytelling from beginning to end. Moss delivers a film that initially starts off with so much hope, seeing these workers coming to the area in search of work. But, like Steinbeck’s novel, the over-abundance of workers thins out the jobs and causes a backlash with the community. The director allows the viewer to meet some of these workers, and these men are just like you and me, hoping to live the American dream-to be able to make money to provide for their family. The majority of these workers have been hit hard by recent economic issues, and their attempts to pull themselves up are heartbreakingly documented here.
The films primary protagonist is Pastor Reinke. He is a good, if naïve, person who ultimately suffers for doing what he believes in his heart is the right thing for these workers. He has, throughout the film, the support of his family, even when one of the men who slept at his home is discovered on the list of sex offenders published by the newspaper. However, when he goes out among the neighbors of the church to talk to the people, he is cast away. Reinke is an idealist who is will to support these men, even with overwhelming resistance from those around him. He is willing to have a rifle pointed at his face, and five minutes later, step out of his truck and gleefully wave at a passing Amtrak train.
Moss’s tells his story at a leisurely pace, allowing the audience to soak in what is before them. At times, it’s tough to watch. A scene where a local reporter literally badgers Reinke as he is walking down the street in regards to the revelation of the sex offenders charge documents the art of restraint on Reinke’s part. Another poignant moment occurs when Reinke confronts one of the workers in a restaurant. But, without a doubt, nothing will prepare the viewer for the bomb that is dropped in the film’s last 15 minutes. It comes out of nowhere, and it make you re-evaluate everything that you’ve seen up to that point. It is literally jaw-dropping.
The Overnighters is a powerful piece of work that makes you think about society as a whole. Jesse Moss delivers a documentary that is both enlightening and heart-breaking at the same time. It tells of Jay Reinke, a good man attempting to do good work for people in need. But his attempt at goodness is disrupted by not only those in his community, but by those he is trying to help. In the Bible, Mark 12:13 says “‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” At one point in the film, Pastor Reinke tells one of the workers, “Jesus never had these neighbors”. The Overnighters is a thought-provoking film that will linger long after seeing it.