Not since Jeff Malmberg’s “Marwencol” (2010) has a documentary taken so many astonishing, unexpected twists, and in so doing revealed such depths of humanity, as in “The Overnighters.” Through patience, skill, discretion, and trust, Jesse Moss has taken a seemingly small town story and turned it into both a microcosm of today’s most urgent issues and a portrait of a single suffering soul.
The latter is pastor Jay Reinke, who, unlike the brain-damaged, amnesiac recluse of Malmberg’s film, operates very much in the real world. But Reinke, too, is “broken,” as he admits in the movie.
The reason seems obvious. The pastor of a Lutheran church in bleak Williston, N.D., a husband and father of four, he has taken to heart Jesus’s instruction to offer love and help to strangers in need. But when it comes to putting this belief into practice, he discovers the limits of Christian charity and tolerance from his parishioners and neighbors (a nadir is reached when one of them draws a bead on both Reinke and the filmmaker with a rifle). More importantly, he discovers the doubts and darkness within himself.
After fracking opened up vast oil reserves in fields near Williston, the community became, unwillingly, a boomtown attracting thousands looking for employment and a second chance. There are jobs, but no accommodations, and most of the newcomers must sleep in their cars. Reinke decides to offer up the church’s facilities as a temporary refuge, called Overnighters, and provide these nomads with counseling as well as a place to sleep.
Few things are more difficult than doing good, it seems. Churchgoers complain about the intrusion. Neighbors express suspicion and disgust. The local paper turns the project into a cause célèbre, linking the influx of transients to an uptick in crime (two of them do, in fact, kidnap and assault a schoolteacher). The city council seems likely to vote on closing Overnighters down. Worst of all, some of those whom Reinke has tried to help threaten to betray him.
In the midst of this affliction, Reinke draws strength from his family and his faith. And perhaps from the companionship of the unseen person behind the camera. Personal anguish becomes a kind of performance, with Reinke playing the tortured hero of his own tragedy.
He seems at first an appealing, ingenuous character, but it gets complicated. He looks unnervingly like Jerry Springer, at times he affects the mealy-mouthed piety of Ned Flanders of “The Simpsons,” and at other times he evokes William H. Macy at his most oppressed and miserable.
The film begins with him staring into the sunset in the proscenium of a roofless building declaiming his agonizing conflict between the public and private self. By the end it’s clear that this performance is no act. In between those two scenes Moss has crafted one of the best documentaries of the year.
Watch the film’s trailer: