Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Documentaries can often act as the most effective form of character study, putting a person’s life underneath an actual lens and forcing them to examine their choices and surroundings at the whims of a camera. At the forefront of the immersive, engrossing The Overnighters is Pastor Reinke, a good man that provides hospice for men and women moving to North Dakota in hopes of finding new jobs in trying times. The economic downturn in most areas of the country has caused an influx of citizens into Williston, a small farming/blue collar town that has prospered due to its extensive oil fields. Pastor Reinke heads a church that houses these citizens that end up moving to North Dakota without a home or any source of revenue. They must start their lives again, but have nobody who will support them. The town mostly thinks of them as wandering vagrants without providing them any sense of humanity. Pastor Reinke doesn’t see it that way, though; he sees them as people with purpose.
He houses hundreds of these opportunistic men in hopes that they can boost the town’s economy and bolster their awareness nationwide. Most of the attention gained from these “overnighters,” though, hurts the perception of the church locally while possibly causing an uptick in crime that the media spreads like wildfire. Suffice to say, Pastor Reinke deals with a lot in the public’s eye. His personal life suffers from the consequences, with Reinke failing to spend the proper amount of time with his family while he houses potentially suspicious individuals. Many claims surrounding the pastor and his hospitality bring into question the integrity of the men moving into Williston; what exactly have these men done that has brought them down on their luck? Some of them openly admit to committing dishonorable criminal acts in their past, while others seem to avoid the truth. Pastor Reinke is in the dark about these men and who they may actually be. Kindness is never something to be vilified, which is why director Jesse Moss uses the camera to showcase a man guided by compassion and heart.
It’s only fitting, then, when the film moves toward tragedy as the truth comes out and a light begins to shine on everyone’s realities. I admire the nature of Moss’s direction, the way that he openly earns his subjects’ trust, who let him see some of the more deeply personal conversations that could be had in such dire circumstances. This is his breakout film. It demonstrates him as a force behind the screen that uses his narrative, however minuscule and seemingly inconsequential it may seem in the grand scope of things, and uses it as a fierce allegory for the pursuit of the American Dream. These men want to better themselves, but can they? The occupation is brutal and demanding (both physically and mentally), with Keegan Edwards being one of the subjects that fights for his family’s well-being while still living out of the church. Pastor Reinke comes under attack by his subjects when he is considered to be favoring these homeless subjects over church attendees, and his personal life disintegrates in front of our eyes as we can do nothing but observe. Sadness pervades the final hour, and it makes for an unrelenting, powerful, and mournful film.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)