Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Oct 13, 2014 9:52 am 
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A powerful film about the complexity of "doing good" in the "real world" of small-town America

Some of the best documentaries get made when their directors, often working alone like Jesse Moss of The Overnighters, simply stick to a subject and patiently follow it around and see where it goes. The results can be unexpected. This is what happens in The Overnighters, a troubling film of emotional depth and moral complexity. Moss was drawn in 2012 from his base in San Francisco to make repeated visits to Williston, North Dakota, the apex of an oil boom prompted by the use of fracturing or fracking. This is a dubious method with severe environmental consequences, but the focus here is on community -- or the lack of it -- not the environment. North Dakota had become second only to Texas in US crude oil production. Tens of thousands of men and a few women were coming to Williston, doubling the population, to earn money off the boom either in the oil industry or from the associated jobs the boom created.

But there was no housing, or what there was had gone up astronomically in price. Job seekers with no place to stay found an ally in Rev. Jay Reinke, pastor of Williston's Concordia Lutheran Church, whom the filmmaker learned about from the local newspaper, the Williston Herald.. Reinke created his "Overnighters" program allowing the newcomers to sleep on sofas, cots, or the floor of the church property or in their cars or in campers or RV's in the church parking lot. As they came and went, he required no compensation, but had requirements of behavior and cleanliness, and urged them to attend church services. (Early on, we see him waking them up singing a hymn.)

This becomes the film's main subject, and it turns into an unusually complex one. Moss follows Reinke, his wife and four children, the Overnighters who come and go, citizens of Williston and members of the church congregation around, gaining intimacy and access. We get closeup looks at some of the Overnighters. Notably Alan Mezo, a wiry ex-con and meth addict from Spokane who has gotten clean, has so much new motivation he is chosen by Reinke to help run the Overnighters program. There is also the strapping young Keegan Edwards, hale and hearty enough to work in the oil fields, who has come from a ghost town (which Moss visits), Antigo, Wis.. Keegan is seeking to support his girlfriend and baby son from a distance. Like many newcomers, he calls her and his family proudly reporting his hiring and good salary and optimistic about a raise coming soon. Later Keegan brings his little family to Williston, but his girlfriend is too bored and goes home again with their child, causing Keegan to lose heart. Then there is Keith Graves, a black truck driver and family man from Los Angeles, about whom we learn more later, and then more again. This is a place of opportunity; but background checks are an issue and danger for some. Fresh starts only work if there are no relapses and no scandal-mongering investigative reporters. But Williston is a tough world and the locals regard the newcomers with suspicion that in some cases turns out to be justified. Their attitude clashes with Rev. Reinke's compassion and forgiveness.

Seeming tireless in his constant, exhausting, day by day physical and verbal exercising of Christian charity, Pastor Reinke makes one think of Mother Teresa's watchword: "God's Love in action to the poorest of the poor." These men are not necessarily the poorest. But many of them are desperate and eager for a second chance in this world that several reviews of this film at Sundance called "Steinbeckian." Mostly the Overnighters aren't homeless, though their local opponents and the Williston Herald calls them that. They have homes in the South or in the Pacific Northwest, or somewhere. In desperation and hope they've left home because they couldn't make enough to support themselves and their families. The oil company requires them to have a local address to apply for work: this, the pastor provides.

The pastor's Christian charity prevents him from judging the people he helps. He welcomes even dubious men, saying he too is "broken." But he has rules, no swearing, no drinking, no long hair. "Did Jesus have short hair?" a guy asks; "Jesus didn't have our neighbors," the pastor answers. How far can charity extend? In the real world, the Concordia Church has neighbors. The pastor does all he can to persuade the neighbors to welcome the newcomers into their midst, but their support hangs by a thread. Some of the trashiest, in most need of someone to look down on, call the Overnighters "trash" to Rev. Reike's face as he makes the rounds practicing "damage control."

One feels intensely in the film the need for charity in this town. The giant oil company (and Halliburton) are there; the locals can't get rid of that, or of the new population it brings in. But it also turns out that Rev. Reinke hasn't consulted much with his own congregation. Williston must be something like a frontier town in the Wild West days now, with a new rough roustabout population of males far outnumbering females, leading to prostitution and crime and drug use the town never knew. The Williston Herald, as we see from a montage of front page stories, is exploiting local fear and resentment. A woman is murdered. Then, the paper publishes a list of registered sex offenders who have come to town. Several of them are sleeping at the church. One is Keith Graves.

We only glimpse this as filtered through the point of view of the Overnighters and Rev. Reike and his family. His wife and four children support him, and express willingness to move Graves into their house to shield him from the newspaper's prying. But this doesn't really work, and Reinke's relationships with Alan Mezo and Keith Graves go bad. Reinke admits all this prevents him from spending the time he should with his wife and children. Some congregation members leave the church. Some key remaining ones strongly oppose what the pastor is doing with the church. The town council discusses a ban on sleeping in RV's, on any property. It's clear their eyes are on shutting down the Overnighters. This is where things begin going more and more wrong.

There are dramatic revelations in the last minutes of The Overnighters that take it to a higher level of intensity; but it remains a documentary whose gut-wrenching complexity grows out of the way it remains pleasingly, as well as disturbingly, unresolved. Clearly one of the best and most important documentaries of the year. It has been made a NY Times Critics Pick, and the paper has called it "a blue-collar meditation on the meaning of community and the imperative of compassion." The film's style is simple and unobtrusive, but its content is rich and its editing is skillfully paced to reveal its information both logically and dramatically.

The Overnighters, 90 mins., debuted at Sundance, where it won the Special Jury Prize for Intuitive Filmmaking. A dozen other festivals followed, including San Francisco; i won thet SFIFF Golden Gate award for Documentary Feature. It opened theatrically 10 October 2014 in New York, at IFC Center, where it was screened for this review. It has so far received raves (Metacritic rating 89%). For a detailed article see here; for some followup see Williston Herald.

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