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Review – The Overnighters

The Overnighters Poster

As well paying jobs become a commodity in America, desperate people will go to extreme measures to find one.  With good work especially scarce between the two coasts, middle Americans don’t have a whole lot of options.  The tiny town of Williston, North Dakota, just happens to be right on top of a goldmine of opportunity.  Oil.

Unprepared for the sudden flood of outsiders looking for work, the people of Williston are afraid of these men sprawling all over town as they try to fulfill the promise of work.  Like Steinbeck’s California, North Dakota is the promised land – promised to too many people.  This emotional documentary focuses on one man – Pastor Jay Reinke of the local Lutheran church – and his drive to do everything he can for these people, even if it’s against the town’s wishes.

Turning the church, and then its parking lot, into temporary (and not so temporary) housing for these job hunters is an incredibly noble act.  Not everyone sees it that way as neighbors are fearful of strangers with clouded pasts, and RV parks begin bursting at the seams.  With more job seekers than jobs, Williston is starting to feel like a shanty town to its quiet residents.  For many of the overnighters, however, they have left homes and families, and can’t afford to return empty handed.  It’s a hard situation for all.

A fascinating microscopic look at the country’s economy and working class, the overarching theme of The Overnighters is one of second chances.  Opening his church, his home, and himself to strangers, Pastor Reinke is giving hope to those who would have none.  It’s a noble cause, but he struggles with whether it is the right thing to do.  Does he really care about these people, or does he just have a problem saying “no?”  Is inviting a sex offender into his home safe for his family and safe for the public image of the church?

As we get to know the Reinkes and the men and families their church is helping it is encouraging to see the good being done – the pastor really cares about these people and has changed their lives for the better.  At the same time, his good deeds are contributing to an atmosphere of fear around town, despite his best efforts.  As the local paper stirs up trouble, the walls are closing in and he is losing his congregation and neighbors.  It’s an emotional roller coaster as we want to support the work he is doing, but it’s easy to see where the fearful neighbors are coming from as well.

There are no clear cut answers here as the film winds to a melancholic close, having shined a light on a dark sliver of America.  And then with a startling revelation, things are turned upside down.  With a confession, Pastor Reinke is the one who will need the second chance he has been bringing to so many others as this chapter closes abruptly.

A multifaceted story about people who could very well be your own friends and neighbors, The Overnighters hits the right buttons.  It’s powerfully emotional.  Obviously with a documentary, there is not as much control over how the story ends, yet it feels incomplete.  Effectively so, yet jarring – I don’t think the story went the direction the filmmakers expected.  At least that’s how it feels, which doesn’t quite work for an otherwise stellar documentary.

Mrs. Hamster did not screen this film

My rating: Four out of five hats

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Trailer:

The Overnighters immigrates to a limited number of theaters November 14

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