Director: Jesse Moss
No good deed goes unpunished, and the central figure of Jesse Moss' documentary The Overnighters learns that the hard way. His loss, though, is Moss' gain as the director has the kind of good luck similar to that of Lauren Greenfield, the director of the great 2012 documentary The Queen of Versailles, in terms of being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time. Having set up the cameras to capture one kind of compelling story - in this case the North Dakota oil boom and the related problem of a town unprepared for and unable to meet its sudden and dramatic increase in population - Moss is there and ready when an even more compelling story begins unfolding out that original one. Like The Queen of Versailles, I would argue that The Overnighters is a film that very much captures how things are now in our socio-economically unbalanced and increasingly unsustainable times, and as a result it's a film that inspires frustration, heartbreak, and astonishment in equal measure.
The action in The Overnighters takes place in Williston, North Dakota, a small town turned boom town as a result of the fracking taking place there. With word having spread of an abundance of available jobs paying six figure salaries, people from across the United States have migrated to Williston to get work, some of them using all the money left to their name in order to make the journey only to arrive and discover that housing is impossible to find both due to demand and rising costs. Even those who arrive in trailers and campers are sometimes out of luck, as campgrounds in Williston and the surrounding area are full up. With nowhere else to go, many of these people find themselves at the local Lutheran church where the pastor, Jay Reinke, welcomes them as part of a program he refers to as "the overnighters." Some sleep on cots or on the floor of the church, those who have vehicles sleep in them in the church's parking lot, and a few are taken in to stay with Reinke and his family at their home. Reinke sees his program as part of his Christian duty and speaks passionately about the need to open the community to these newcomers rather than treat them with hostility and suspicion. His words fall largely on deaf ears, however, as members of his congregation resent having their church overtaken by outsiders, the local government worries about the extra drain on resources and the health and safety hazards of having so many people creating makeshift shelters for themselves in the town, and the rest of the residents worry about the uptick in crime and, in particular, about the revelation that many of the men coming through town looking for work are on the sex offender registry.
Tensions between the Reinke family and the rest of the town steadily rise as new city ordinances are enacted aimed at curtailing the incursion of the outsiders into the town, the church's congregation begins to challenge Reinke's use of church property for the overnighters program, and a local reporter is tipped off to the fact that one of the men who has been invited to stay in Reinke's house is a sex offender. Though Reinke remains firm in his conviction that he's doing the right thing and fighting the good fight, the pressure coming from all around him clearly begins to take its toll. He ejects some of the overnighters that have come to seem problematic and they react to his rejection of them with anger and sometimes threats of retribution, at least one of which appears to have come to pass when the film takes a sudden turn in its final act and Reinke makes a confession that casts everything that passed beforehand in a somewhat different light - and that's only the beginning of his downward spiral. The man who started this story trying to be the savior of others now finds himself in need of a savior of his own - but no one's there to take on the job.
In telling the story of The Overnighters, Moss takes a generally balanced view. By virtue of the fact that it follows Reinke and a few members of the program, the film aligns itself more easily with that side of the story, but it does touch on the issues that arise for all sides. Williston needs the oil industry both economically and socially; small towns like it are dying across North America because a lack of industry and work is leading to people leaving in droves, including those who are coming to Williston desperate for work. By the same token, however, the people coming to Williston aren't necessarily coming in order to set down roots and become part of the community; many of them seem to come with the intention of putting in several months work, putting the money away, and then taking it back to where they came from, so the social benefits to Williston as a community are short-term, at best, and it's not difficult to understand why the people of Williston are less than enthusiastic about the newcomers. Moreover, the fact that the housing market cannot sustain the sheer number of people coming into town, and the fact that there are more people coming than there are jobs to fill, means that Williston suddenly finds itself contending with problems that it doesn't really have the infrastructure to deal with, such as a sharp increase in the homeless population as well as increases in crime.
At the same time, however, you have to empathize with the people coming to Williston to work because it takes a certain level of desperation to pull up stakes and use what little money you have left to move across the country on nothing more than the chance that you might find work. To get there and discover that there may be nothing for you and that, even if there is, you could end up homeless anyway because there's nowhere for you to live, must be incredibly disheartening. This is the case of one of the overnighters profiled by the film, a young man who borrows money from his father to travel to Williston from his home in Wisconsin so that he can secure a job to support his girlfriend and their infant son and who appears, at first, to be a success story, getting a job and then a promotion, but who ends up back in Wisconsin when living in a camper with an infant with no support system and seemingly no prospect of getting into a better living situation (the fact that they even have a place to park their camper seems miraculous given how pessimistic the park's manager seems about the possibility that anything will open up anytime soon) proves too much for his girlfriend to bear. To top it off, what happens to him on his way back to Wisconsin takes his story from "unfortunate" to downright "tragic."
The issues being faced by the town of Williston in The Overnighters are not unique and in that respect the film speaks to an alarmingly prevalent situation across North America as the middle and working classes are disappearing or otherwise finding their means of preservation being undercut by an economy that has shifted to rely on overseas production and to increasingly cater to an upper class that is taking at a much higher rate than it is giving back. In that respect it tells a very general story that you could argue is the story of America today. In another respect, however, it is very much the story of Reinke, with whom the film spends the majority of its time, and who emerges as a fascinating figure of contradiction and ambiguity. He talks a great a game and there's a degree to which it seems very, very genuine, but even before the film begins showing him in less flattering light, there's also a sense in which he seems to be talking simply because he likes to hear himself talk and is playing a role. There's a certain degree of arrogance to him throughout, but particularly on the occasions where he finds himself having to eject an overnighter that he had previously aligned himself with as a champion and his attitude towards them undergoes a sudden change so that it seems like he's just finding an excuse to drop them, as often what he ends up saying are the exact things that others have already said and that he himself had previously fought against. While Reinke is trying to help people and do good, it seems like he's very motivated by the presence of the camera and the opportunity to nurture a very high profile image of himself, an idea which is only underscored by the revelation in the final act, after the tide has turned fully against him and he abandons the image of himself as a hero in order to fully embrace an image of himself as a martyr. If he wasn't doing that, I can't imagine that he couldn't have found an opportunity to make his big confession to his wife in private rather than hitting her with it in front of the camera and in a public place, turning her anguish into a prop for what Reinke seems to see as the tale of his own redemption, one which will begin with a very public act of metaphorical self-flagellation. Reinke is a complicated figure and Moss makes the most of that, creating a film that often surprises and is riveting from beginning to end.