"The Overnighters" starts
out as a documentary about a church trying to give some unemployed men a place to sleep. It appears as if it will be a story about a small town's astonishing generosity, and the charitable spirit of one man in particular.
By the end of the film, it has become something altogether different, and perhaps even despairing.
Director Jesse Moss situates his camera in a church in Williston, North Dakota. North Dakota is experiencing an oil boom, and there are some jobs to be had. Consequently, many struggling, unemployed men head for the city, filling up its apartments, trailer parks and hotels.
Pastor Jay Reinke wants to help. At first, he takes in a few men who are homeless, and gives them a place to sleep and some food. The word gets out, and the church and its parking lot become overcrowded with homeless men. This creates problems with the neighbors and the congregation in that not all of the men are on their best behavior. Heck, some of the guys even go fishing for seagulls in the church parking lot (it's a real thing), making things hard for the Pastor.
The direr the situation becomes, the more generous Reinke becomes. He even opens up his own home and lets men sleep in his downstairs family room. Ross captures some of the neighborly frustrations with Reinke through interviews and town meetings, where residents call for an end to the program now called The Overnighters.
While most of the film deals with Reinke and his struggles to keep The Overnighters afloat, we do see some of the men doing their best to make a better life for themselves and their family. One of the subjects Moss focuses on is a young man named Keegan Edwards as he tries to support his family from afar. Keegan is getting ahead, even working up to a supervisory position at a local plant.
Like Keegan, some other stories unfold with hope as men get jobs and seem to be getting their acts together. Unfortunately, one of the stark, frank facts that Moss puts forth in "The Overnighters" is that the best of intentions and good, hard honest work can still result in total devastation.
This is actually a very dark movie that offers no real solutions and no heroes. As the situation heightens, Reinke gets himself into trouble for allowing registered sex offenders to not only stay at the church but at his home. Moss captures moments of Reinke going door-to-door to try and build support for the program, but the townspeople start to turn on him.
Just when things hit a fever pitch regarding the program, the film drops some major bombs that change everything. We see Reinke arguing with men he set out to help, but have now renounced him, calling him "arrogant" and a liar. We see signs that Reinke might have a couple of personality flaws that can be troublesome at times, including a bit of a temper.
Then, a major lapse in judgment regarding his own marriage and family causes his world to come crashing down around him. Reinke ultimately winds up in the same situation of most of the men he has been trying to help.
This is not a feel good movie. It's basically saying that some people are beyond redemption. No matter how hard they try, their demons will still get the best of them. No matter who tries to help, they are beyond help. It's disheartening, but it's also very real.
And as for those trying to help, sometimes they are just as vulnerable. Things can get so dark that a winning attitude and determination will get you nowhere
Still, you have to try, right?
Moss's film shows us men who try, and try hard, to make things better for themselves and their families. For the most part, they all fail miserably. "The Overnighters" is a straight shot of brutal honesty and dark realities in that some people are going to lose everything and never get ahead.
It's very depressing, and it very well should be. Credit Moss for an honest, unyielding portrait of when things go bad. Sometimes, this is something that each and every one of us needs to see.
Directed by Jesse Moss
Opens at the Loft Cinema Friday, Nov. 14. A special screening is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 16 at 2 p.m., featuring a Skype Q&A with the director.