Starkly bleak, immensely sorrowful, and distressingly humane, The Overnighters is a vital snapshot of the new Great Depression; a boldly provocative tale of humanity and hardship; and a righteous piece of empathetic, of-the-moment documentary filmmaking. It’s a modern-day Grapes of Wrath.
The Overnighters is an intimate portrait of broken job-seekers running from their demons and desperately chasing the American Dream to the tiny oil boom haven of Williston, North Dakota. With the isolated town on the arid prairies lacking the infrastructure to house the overflow of migrants and affordable housing proving almost impossible to find, local pastor Jay Reinke starts the controversial “overnighters” program, allowing down-and-out workers a place to sleep at Concordia Lutheran Church. His well-meaning project immediately runs into resistance with the surrounding community.
Director Jesse Moss films this Steinbeckian narrative of financial anxiety and pathological concern with an uncomfortable intensity. Moss was basically a one-man production crew, and his camera captures hushed conversations, spilled secrets, and moral trespasses without flinching. Lensed with a complete absence of frills that perfectly suits its honest, unvarnished tone – although the landscapes look like Andrew Wyeth paintings – it’s assured, sensitive filmmaking and non-fiction storytelling of remarkable nuance.
As men abandon homes, families, and dreams to stake their claim in an ever-shrinking land of opportunity, The Overnighters reproduces an unforgettable snapshot of a despairing moment in American history. It’s a straightforward endeavour: Moss tells truths and earns trust with his subjects. Yet in examining Reinke’s selfless service, Moss uncovers something greater than a vision of a divided community; he’s made something as prickly and surprising as any fictional character study.
Raw, relevant, and comprehensibly irresolvable, The Overnighters is a poignant and painful excoriation of the American dream so stuffed with incident that someone could remake it into an overcooked, Americana melodrama. Its story sounds like the sort of dry news column you’d skim over in the Sunday paper, but it unfolds into an epic tragedy, becoming a heart-wrencher about the clash between economics and ethics.
Winner of the US Documentary Special Jury Award for Intuitive Filmmaking at Sundance, The Overnighters is commendable for many reasons, not the least of which is the way it allows complex issues to remain complex. As an investigation of the double-edged sword that is unexpected prosperity, it’s as worthy a case for additional industry across the First World than any political speech. A damning indictment chronicling basic decency’s collapse in a depressed environment of intolerance and unease, it speaks to the eternal dilemma of doing the right thing in a community beset by suspicion and fear.
Through Moss’s patience, skill, and discretion, a small town story is turned into a sobering must-see, a social-justice documentary that packs a visceral emotional wallop, a microcosm of today’s most urgent issues, and a dire portrait of communal unrest and compassion under fire. It’s a fascinating and fervent account of one man’s dogged, naïve quest to juggle charity and conviction with social, familial, and professional duties. In the first month of 2014, here’s an indelible, if almost too brief, American documentary.
Like the last few seconds of This Is Not a Film, Moss closes the movie on a perfect irony, as the audience witnesses a heartrending payoff that could not be anticipated nor written. There is no sin greater than pride, and in The Overnighters, no assumption is safe. The tsunami-force waves of chance and circumstance leave no one standing.