By Sean Gillane | The Playlist May 6, 2014 at 6:07PM
The small town of Williston, North Dakota has had an oil boom, and people desperate for work from around the country are making the trip out in search of high paying jobs. They’ve heard stories on the news and from a friend of a friend that describe Williston as the unique remaining land of opportunity in a struggling post-recession United States. The reality is that these jobs do exist, but they aren’t as plentiful as promised. Also missing from the stories that drew these men to Williston is the incredibly high cost of housing in the region, inflated due to the influx of people new to the city.
The result of this combination is a town with too many newcomers looking for jobs without enough space or work to satiate their needs. With nowhere to sleep, some of the men have set up a home within their own cars while others build temporary shelters every night while searching for work during the day.
In steps Pastor Jay Reinke, the leader of a quiet Lutheran Church in Williston. Recognizing that these men are struggling and simply in search of work, he opens the doors of the church to them. The men sleep on furniture, cots, and the floor when necessary. Others stay in their cars in the parking lot of the church, a situation allowable by the laws of the city. What started as a program to keep these men safe and warm during the cold Winter season, Reinke’s “Overnighters” program extends into a year-round reality for the church.
While Reinke’s program is well-intended and in the interest of what he considers the entire community of Williston, the longer-term citizens of the city are not as welcoming. There is fear and distrust of the newcomers, especially those that are without jobs. The xenophobia is partially fueled by the city’s local newspaper, The Williston Herald, where a reporter has taken it upon himself to uncover the potentially illegal activities of Reinke’s church and reveal the criminal backgrounds of the men that Reinke has chosen to take in.
Much of director Jesse Moss’ “The Overnighters” spends its time with Reinke facing his program’s obstacles. The pastor is mostly alone in his fight to keep things running save for a supportive family. Unfortunately, it’s a family that he doesn’t have much time for due to his responsibilities to his program. Otherwise the film floats around with some of the Overnighters themselves, exposing their struggles to find work, their alienation from the city of Williston, and the distance, emotional as much as physical, from their loved ones, whom they had to abandon in their search for a living wage.
“The Overnighters” is effective in creating an intimate understanding of all those involved in the program. Outside forces in the form of annoyed neighbors, cold city council people, and obsessive reporters are described on a less personal level, keeping us on the Overnighters’ team. It builds up a lot of good will throughout, even if at times it feels unfocused. Is this Pastor Reinke’s story or the story of the men he’s helping? That question is fully answered by the end of the film and is solidified by a choice made by the filmmaker that call’s the film’s true intentions into question. It's a strong decision and it unquestionably demands an emotional response as much as an intellectual one, but ultimately it results in a distancing from a world that once felt so intimate and accessible. [B]
For another take, read our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.