THE OVERNIGHTERS is the tale of a town in North Dakota flooded by people looking for employment after a fracking boom. Local pastor Jay Reinke has opened up his church to the migrants, providing them with places to sleep, as many struggle to find either work or accommodation in a town that can’t support them.
The film begins as an overview, offering snapshots of the lives of some of the ‘overnighters’, but then focuses in on the efforts of Pastor Reinke, who works tirelessly to support these workers in the name of charity. However, many residents are uncomfortable with the programme and he soon faces fierce opposition, particularly after is it revealed that a number of the men he is protecting have criminal pasts, including sex offenders. As the story unfolds, the pastor unravels, and at the heart of his disillusionment are the issues that make this such a compelling documentary.
Comparisons to The Grapes of Wrath are not unfounded; on one level this is a story of men chasing the American Dream, and the disappointment they meet with is just as affecting now as it was in the 1930s. At the announcement of the closure of the Overnighters programme, one man breaks down; he can’t understand why they are being punished for seeking a better life, a principle America was founded on. The heartbreak and loss of hope is palpable, and filmmaker Jesse Moss does not shy away from strong emotions on screen, providing a reminder that this is a microcosm of a much larger problem across America.
But the true hook of the film is the questions it raises about human motives and morality. An unflinching look at Pastor Reinke’s actions and their consequences reveals that perhaps, sadly, there is no such thing as an altruistic act. He is candid about the effect on his ego, and admits that not everybody leaves his care better off. One such individual effectively brings about the downfall of Pastor Reinke and the Overnighters scheme. The film reaches an unexpected and incredibly moving end that helps explain the pastor’s motives. His willingness to see past people’s sins reflects his own need to be accepted.
By the film’s conclusion Reinke has lost all hope – not for the American Dream, but for the goodness of a community that will protect and love outsiders rather than closing ranks and forcing them out. His final confession to Moss comes from a fearful, shattered man, the antithesis of the ever-sacrificing, heroic figure portrayed at the beginning. It’s hard to believe that this is the film that Jesse Moss set out to make, but what he has uncovered is more powerful and fascinating than the modern-day fable about the pursuit of wealth that the film also happens to be.