You only have to look at my top ten favourite film lists posted at the end of the last few years to see that I love a good documentary. Every list I’ve posted here has featured at least one and 2014’s list featured three! You may have noticed that I don’t review many though. This isn’t a personal choice, it’s largely down to the PR contacts I’ve had over the years for screeners, but as the old saying about buses goes, you wait for ages to review documentaries and a whole bunch of them come along at once. You’ll have to wait and see exactly what other film reviews are in the pipeline, but I can say that I’ve currently got four documentary screeners sat on my shelf to cover over the next month or so.
First up is Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters. Winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, the documentary follows the work of Jay Reinke, a pastor in Williston. This city in North Dakota saw a huge influx of people coming to work there after large shale gas reserves were found. Unfortunately, Williston couldn’t cope with this sudden boom. There simply weren’t enough houses for people to live in and the price of existing housing went through the roof, forcing people out of their homes and leaving newcomers with nowhere to stay.
To try and tackle this crisis, Jay and his parish set-up the ‘overnighters’ programme at his church. This basically involved allowing homeless out-of-towners to sleep in the building or in their cars in the parking lot. ‘Residents’ were allowed to stay for a month so long as they respected their surroundings and they were encouraged to join the congregation on Sundays.
This selfless charitable act caused no end of problems though. For one, it began to get out of hand due to the volume of people taking it up and also the permanent local residents were not happy to share their town with hordes of ‘outsiders’. Stoked by the local press and not helped by some high profile crimes reportedly committed by these new arrivals as well as some dangerous risks taken by Jay, fear and anger grew to such a degree that the town worked to change laws on living in RV’s/campervans and the existence of the ‘overnighters’ programme came under threat.
So what starts off as a seemingly heart-warming story of a pastor’s mission to help those in need becomes a dark portrait of the current state of America. With desperate people leaving poverty to find success and fortune only ending up living in squalor anyway, it shows what the American Dream has become in these difficult times.
The film also charts the downfall of a man who is only trying to give people a second chance and be a ‘good neighbour’. I’ve always been suspicious of overly nice, positive preacher types (I’m an atheist which doesn’t help) and Jay came off a bit false to me because of this, but he is undeniably an honourable man acting selflessly to help others. As his mission becomes increasingly more difficult though, the cracks begin to show and it’s disturbing to see him enter free fall, especially in the final scenes when an unexpected twist delivers a cruel punchline. The Overnighters shows that life is more complicated than being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and that doing what you think is right can be extremely difficult and doesn’t always work out for the best.
That is what I liked most about the film, its depth and unwillingness to give straight answers to difficult questions. It’s not the best looking of documentaries, from a technical standpoint it’s nothing special and the narrative arc isn’t as satisfying as in some popular favourites over the last few years. However, in not offering a nice, clean Hollywood-friendly story and avoiding making a totally one-sided argument, The Overnighters offers more food for thought than your average documentary. There are a number of moral and political quandaries, as well as characters who aren’t portrayed in blacks or whites. I didn’t find it as emotionally engaging as I thought I might, given the subject matter and number of bleak personal tragedies in the film, but it’s so rich and thought-provoking I didn’t find that an issue. If you fancy a change to the mindless mush too often served up at the cinema, The Overnighters can provide a sobering remedy.
The Overnighters is released on DVD on 9th February in the UK by Dogwoof. I viewed an online screener so can’t comment on picture quality or special features.