Saturday, January 24, 2015

movie review: The Overnighters

The Overnighters 
(USA, 2014) 
directed by Jesse Moss

The Overnighters is difficult to pin down at first. It's hard to tell if it will be a documentary about the social consequences of companies like Halliburton moving in to states like North Dakota and drawing desperate workers from all over the US. Or perhaps it will be a documentary about how, when faced with actual need, congregations of Christian churches have a difficult time actually following the tenet of "love thy neighbour" rather than "be suspicious of thy neighbour and engage in NIMBYism." Or, perhaps it will be about how a pastor seemingly determined to actually help out those in need may be acting out of egotism and a Messiah complex. It turns out it's not solely about any one of these things, but all these elements combined make it a fascinating and complex account of community and individual lives in the 21st century's version of The Grapes of Wrath.

Pastor Jay Reinke is a compassionate community-minded man in charge of a Lutheran congregation in Williston, North Dakota, near the oil patch. Refreshingly, Pastor Reinke actually seems to take seriously Jesus' message about caring for those in need. He opens up the church building and parking lot to "overnighters," people looking for work in the oil patch who don't have any place to live. Because of the oil boom, there are no accommodations available in town, which is a problem even for people who have secured work and can afford a place of their own. Then there are the hopefuls who turn up but can't get work because they're too old or messed up or there just isn't the work available for them.

The town and part of the congregation are very distrustful of the "overnighters." There are stories in the paper about the rise in crime rates; neighbours complain about the noise and mess. There are revelations that some of the men being housed in the church have criminal records. Some are on the sex offender registry list. How Pastor Reinke deals with all this is interesting to watch. At times, I felt put to shame by the amount of personal sacrifice he was willing to undergo in order to help out people who need a hand. However, at other times, I was uncomfortable at how much he wanted his family to sacrifice, slightly disturbed at the manic zeal he displayed in defending the "overnighters" against the congregants and community, and alarmed at the way he would occasionally berate some of the men in his frustration.

In addition to Pastor Reinke, we meet some of the men who have come to Williston hoping to find work. Some, like Keegan, find work and manage to make a reasonable amount of money, but since there is no accommodation, they can only move on from the church parking lot or floor to an RV that isn't much better. They can't move their families to be near them so they have to Skype with their wives and little babies. Others are too old to be desirable to employers. Yet others have trouble with addiction or with criminal records that have followed them.

Aside from the personal narratives, the movie also throws into sharp relief the fact that fundamentally, something in America is broken. Pastor Reinke speaks to a clearly disturbed man who says he is broken, and the pastor says he is broken too. What is very clear is that the social and economic fabric of the US is also broken. There is something wrong when people have to live in RVs and sleep in their cars and church basements just to work at a job that isn't stable enough for them to move their families there too. What is Halliburton's social responsibility? What is the responsibility of the community to these "overnighters"? How do we deal with people in need? Why does this fall on one pastor and one congregation? What do we do when that isn't enough?

The last part of the movie knocked me for a loop. It's amazing to think this is a documentary and not a piece of fiction. I won't reveal what happens, but suffice it to say it's a strong movie even without the coda, and with the coda it's something else. It's certainly not how I expected the movie to end, but it closes the narrative nicely. I found myself looking back over the rest of the movie with a new perspective--not because I felt duped and betrayed, but because it made so many of the pieces of the film fall into place in a new pattern, and made me feel a renewed empathy for the beleaguered pastor.

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