At the foot of Lady Liberty, there’s the famous quote meant to welcome immigrants to the young nation: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” It’s arguably not reflective of US immigration policy, but it’s a part of the American mythos that citizens still hold dear and recall when learning the poem as children, sitting cross-legged around their second-grade teachers. With the recent recession tossing families through financial tempests, job opportunities have sprung up in some of the most unlikeliest of places. Desperate for work, some men packed their belongings, tied them to the back of a flatbed truck and made the pilgrimage out west, to the oil fields of North Dakota, to be exact, as documented in the new film The Overnighters. Not all find riches, few can find homes, and they face a new crisis in the inhospitable town that says they have no more room for newcomers.
Enter Lutheran Pastor Reinke, an affable town figure with a warm cordial voice well accustomed to Sunday morning sermons, there to help the homeless men (it is mostly men looking for work in oil fields) find their footing in a community that doesn’t want them. He cites the golden rule, the Christian doctrine to “love thy neighbor” but to little avail, as his community and then his congregation rejects him and the men he houses at the church for free, known as the Overnighters.
Director Jesse Moss doesn’t seem to know how deep his documentary would cut. The Overnighters shows the Reinke family’s whole-hearted earnestness in trying to help others, even as they face incredible small-town pressure and untold secrets that threaten their household. The suspense of the town’s hostility is in stark contrast to the Days of Heaven-like scenery of golden wheat fields bouncing in the wind.
The Overnighters is an incredibly personal (if troubling at times) story that challenges its viewers to accept it. Like the men looking for a home, Reinke is also searching for solace. When the movie ends, the pastor is just as adrift as his ministry. As a documentary, The Overnighters so carefully reveals its details, it’s easy to miss the subtle signs. It presumes the audience is just as unassuming as Moss was when he was staying as an overnighter himself, capturing events as they unfurled. The Overnighters doesn’t feel gossipy or exploitive in tone. What the audience is in store for is an unlikely confession from an unlikely source.