One constant throughout history is that someone always has to be the scapegoat, particularly when times get tough. That's when such ugly beliefs like Hispanic immigrants steal American jobs, and other charming bits of racism, gain wide circulation.
It's often the poorest among us who are blamed the most. The rich may occasionally lose their jobs, sometimes even go to prison for their crimes, but those who have the least have fewer defenses, connections, and resources, and thus are easier targets. And giving into the vices that haunt their class is a constant temptation for the extremely rich and extremely poor.
Solutions are rarely easy, especially when the gulf between the two widens and becomes embedded in everyday life. And when there's an influx of new poor, things become that much more complicated.
“The Overnighters” shows what happens when one small town is forced to grapple with such forces, which are inevitably bigger than everyone caught in the midst of them and can prevent the best of us from seeing clearly. Such is the situation of the residents of Williston, North Dakota, which becomes a prime destination for desperate men who hear of well-paying jobs in the oil fields. Naturally, they are the subject of fear and suspicion among the locals, and not all of their fears are unwarranted. Desperate times tend to breed similarly desperate men, and the local paper tells of the worst of their actions.
So when local pastor Jay Reinke decides to use his church to offer some of the men a place to sleep and eat, it doesn't go over well. Unasked for new things are particularly scary, particularly when they come to a small town that's only used to one set of people. It leads to one of the more humorous scenes where Pastor Reinke advises one of the men to cut his hair so he'll be less offensive to the locals.
“Did Jesus have short hair?” the man asks.
“Jesus doesn't have our neighbors,” Reinke replies.
While many of the locals aren't depicted well, the camera spares no one, even those most in need. Assisting them is sometimes made more difficult by the men themselves, and when Reinke is forced to cut ties with a few of them, some of them even decide to seek revenge. Then it's discovered that some of these men are even sex offenders.
However, others aren't even homeless. They come to Williston with no place to go, but many have left behind homes, even families, that they cannot support in the towns they come from. One talks about how well things are going for him in his sparser than sparse surroundings. Keegan Edwards, from Antigo, Wisconsin gets a good job, then is sidelined by an injury, and his father tells him not to come back home to the lack of opportunities that drove him away. The heart is broken again and again when stories such as these are told.
But much of the focus is put on Pastor Reinke himself, who at first is depicted as almost saintly, but there's even a few shocking revelations in the documentary's third act that gives us a much more complex man, as well as more insight into why is able to empathize with broken men so completely.
This refusal to sugarcoat anyone makes “The Overnighters” all the more poignant as an examination of the best and worst we are capable of. The end result is a thoughtful, intelligent documentary with no easy answers, or really any answers at all. Rather, it is writer-director Jesse Moss's shout into the void that is global economics, a call that pleads for empathy and tolerance for those who cannot speak for themselves (even with all their flaws on full display) and rarely have a voice when such issues are discussed.
However, the film's focus on even such a compulsively watchable man as Reinke has its drawbacks as well. The end credits, where some of the more overlooked men introduce themselves to the camera, indicate an even greater story. Some of these men hail from places as far away as Africa. How many of these issues are due to racism as well? How does a man journey from Ghana to Williston, North Dakota? It made me wish the camera had lingered on more of the overnighters, since their presence indicates there's even more to the story than even the humane treatment here covered.