Review: The Overnighters (Moss, 2013) – Sundance 2014

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

Courtesy of the Sundance Institute

I’m going to begin this review by saying I have no idea how to critique documentaries. As I’ve been known to say, it seems to me that when a documentary is made well, the viewers don’t notice. The filmmaker just gets out of the way and lets the story be told. My comments, then, end up focused on how compelling the story itself is.

With that preface, I’ll go out on a limb and say that The Overnighters offers one of the most compelling stories I’ve ever seen in a documentary. Centered around a pastor in Williston, North Dakota, who is driven to help the tens of thousands of unemployed men who descend on the fracking boom town in search of fabled six figure salaries, The Overnighters presents a complex portrait of a man determined to do good and the remarkable family that supports him. The Overnighters is a church program that the pastor starts in order to give these men a place to sleep and a place they can, at least temporarily, call home. Unlike other stories about the environmental, health, or seismic consequences of the fracking boom, this film focuses on its social effects.

I have to give credit to director Jesse Moss for the way in which the story unfolds (all the more praiseworthy considering that he filmed all the footage himself, at least according to the Q&A session my friend attended). With each person that the pastor helps, the audience feels his initial hope and euphoria at doing good, as well as the bitter pill of hardship and disappointment that often follows. But it’s really Pastor Jay Reinke himself who makes the film as complicated and powerful and enthralling as it is–by embodying all of those qualities.

I don’t know how to talk about this film except to talk around and around it. Reinke is remarkable. Sometimes he seems like a saint. Other times like a petty coward. I’m not religious, but his brand of religion with its focus on helping people seems to me to be the best side of Christianity. At the same time, he tells the people he’s helping that they have to come to church, they have to pray with him, they have to cut their hair. He doesn’t outright ban one man from admiring the band Kiss, but his distaste is evident. From the Q&A, we know that he is morally opposed to homosexuality. This coercion and small-mindedness, to me, is the dark side of faith. Both sides reside in Pastor Reinke, and both come out in the film. The amount of access that the director has with Reinke and his family is astonishing. We see them at their most naked, their most vulnerable. No one flinches, nor escapes.

If I had one criticism to make of the film, it is only to echo Reinke’s own initial critique, which he summarized at the film’s Q&A session (yes, he was there!): In his initial viewing of the movie in December, he didn’t feel that it captured the sense of community that the Overnighters created (though he thought it came through the second time he watched it). I, however, agree more with his first impression–the film focuses more on the men whose hopes are thwarted rather than the ones helped by Reinke’s program. But maybe that was the more interesting tale to tell.

Note: In the Q&A, one viewer asked for updates about the other people the film followed. Reinke mentioned that he keeps in touch with one of them, Allen, over Facebook. Check out Pastor Reinke’s Facebook page!

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