Documentaries can serve many roles: they can inform, they can influence and yes, they can bore. But some, like genre greats Hoop Dreams and Capturing the Friedmans, take a seed of an idea and pursue it with the dramatic precision of a fictional feature film. The result is an exquisite experience: watching a true story that feels like it’s being created before our eyes. That’s how I felt while watching The Overnighters, which I found to be one of the most compelling and transfixing documentaries that I’ve seen all year
The movie’s title refers to a program started by Pastor Jay Reinke at his church in Williston, North Dakota, which allows men who are effectively homeless to find shelter as they hope to take advantage of the rampant growth in the area’s fracking jobs. While this is clearly an overwhelming act of charity, Reinke’s plan soon comes under fire from a community whose recent population spike has also seen an increase in the number of felons and criminals residing in the small North Dakota town. When details of an Overnighter’s criminal past come to light, Reinke finds himself in a very public act of moral tug-of-war that threatens to erode his career and his family’s trust.
Even if you take the weighty and worthwhile topics of economic inequality and the nature of charity away from The Overnighters, you would still be left with a fascinating and deeply personal character study. Reinke is compelling for the same reason the main character in a fictional drama would be: we root for him and yet we can’t be entirely sure of his motivations. He consistently refers to himself as a deeply flawed man when confiding in the men that he shelters, although he generally comes off as a thoughtful, charismatic and generally kind person. “It’s easy to become a facade,” he states at the film’s opening, and we don’t fully learn the weight of what he means until the concluding moments of the story.
The entire structure of The Overnighters is similarly purposeful, which can be attributed to the keen eyes and ears of director Jesse Moss. In interviews, Moss has revealed that he originally went to Williston to capture the fracking story and how it affected the community but he shifted his story’s focus when learning of Pastor Reinke and his mission. This spontaneous shift in storytelling makes Moss’ film even more admirable, especially considering that Reinke’s culminating moment in the movie was almost entirely unplanned by the filmmaker.
I also admired Moss’ level headed approach to this material. This is a documentary potentially ripe for loads of political posturing but he gives each character room to express their thoughts and feelings freely instead of editing together a series of talking head interviews to hammer home a point. The Overnighters often plays like a parable for the cynical notion that “no good deed goes unpunished” but in Reinke’s case, the unravelling of that good deed reveals universal truths about the resiliency of the human spirit.