"The Overnighters" (2014) Retrospect Review
"Jesus didn't have our neighbors."
In a fictional story, a line like that might have sounded corny, especially if it was delivered by a pastor. But The Overnighters doesn't have a fictional story to tell. It's a documentary, and by proxy, the quote above is said out loud by a pastor, Jay Reinke. In that context, the quote is chilling, because if you make it far enough into The Overnighters to hear the quote, the proper response is to silently nod. He's telling truth after all.
Few documentaries feel like The Overnighters. Its story almost feels cinematic in the sense that the real stories its conveying seem to follow a three act structure. That's not just a trick of editing either, The Overnighters feels like it was ripped out of another time in American history, or really any time in history where the discovery of a valuable resource left chaos in its wake.
In The Overnighters, fracking in North Dakota opens up a series of oil fields that leads to a mass migration of workers from all around the country hoping to lift themselves out of the wreck of the recession. The first wave of workers find a prosperous life, some of them even earning six figure salaries. But the rest, some spending all they had left on the trip to North Dakota, find themselves homeless and adrift in various cities in North Dakota. The documentary zeroes in on the town of Williston, North Dakota where its local pastor, the aforementioned Jay Reinke, is trying to help these homeless men by giving them a place to sleep at night, the "Overnighters" program. Opposed by members of his congregation, the city board, journalists, and even some of the homeless, Reinke desperately tries to keep the program alive.
Reinke is the anchor that tethers the audience to the documentary, but he's certainly not its only subject of interest. There are various side stories that all pack devastating impacts, from the young man trying to bring his girlfriend and son into town with him to a man in his 50s whose marriage hangs in the balance. None of the stories are as devastating as the story Reinke himself though. The ending of The Overnighters is the ultimate blindside, the metaphorical equivalent of a semi-truck barreling into the story. Again, this ending is not a trick of editing. The story ends the way it does because that's the reality of its subject's situation.
The last several years or so have been incredible for documentary filmmaking, and a lot of the time it feels like some great ones manage to fall through the cracks. I personally feel like The Overnighters is woefully underrated considering just how well made it is and especially considering the Steinbeck-esque story that it tells. As of publishing this review, the documentary is available on Netflix and absolutely deserves to be seen and discussed on a wider scale. It's deeply affecting and truly excellent.
And as odd as this sounds, if you want to have a Netflix documentary double feature watch Jesus Camp first, then The Overnighters (it's an interesting compare and contrast to say the least and if you don't know what Jesus Camp is, I'll write a review for that too some day, it's a rough one).