‘The Overnighters’ Captures the Decay of the American Dream

In Movies & TV by Lee Gardnerleave a COMMENT

The Bible commands Christians to love their neighbors. But the congregation at Concordia Lutheran Church in Williston, N.D., had trouble with that. Williston is the epicenter of the fracking boom, and every day men from all over the country show up by car, bus, or train, looking for work. And for over a year, more than a thousand of them ended up at Concordia, where Pastor Jay Reinke let them sleep in the church and use it as a home base until they got on their feet. As witnessed by Jesse Moss’s astonishing documentary The Overnighters, now streaming on Netflix and available wherever else home video is rented or sold, complications ensued.

Selfless goodness generally doesn’t come jetting up out of the ground these days, but Reinke is a-slosh with it. Moss’ cameras find him before dawn, waking the men crashed in his hallways; straight-talking to the new men who show up in his parking lot looking for a spot inside; attending meetings with local politicians and his own congregants to plead for forbearance on behalf of his temporary charges; and eventually slipping off to spend a few minutes with his wife and kids. Poised, articulate, and unfailingly kind, he’s a mountain-states mensch.

The men he’s trying to help are more complicated, at least on the surface. Few brought with them much more than hopes and, frequently, traces of troubled pasts. Addicts, ex-cons, the poor and dispirited—you know, the sort of folks Jesus hung out with. Yet the city council, Reinke’s parishioners, and local media run short of patience for the strain they put on everything. Pretty soon Reinke himself is strained, along with his family, as he goes to ever more desperate lengths to protect the men who have asked him for help. Not to get all clickbait-y, but you will not believe where this story ends up.

The past year or two has seen a number of excellent documentaries—We Always Lie to Strangers and Rich Hill, for two—that take as their subject that deceptively familiar idea of Middle America. In The Overnighters, you get a good long look at the steep curve of the new energy boom, the attenuated odds that now define the American Dream for many, and the flinty hearts that inhabit many in the heartland. Every American should see this film.

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