The North Dakota boomtown of Williston lies smack in the middle of a lucrative oil field that has attracted a sudden influx of capital and labor, with attendant complications. That gives Jesse Moss’s timely documentary The Overnighters the rush of capturing a small slice of American history in the making, but Moss soon goes on to focus on a Lutheran pastor who devotes himself to the plight of the migrant workers struggling to stay afloat.
We see Pastor Jay Reinke at the church center where he lets the unemployed sleep, at his home with his picture-perfect but uneasy family, and around town, where fellow residents are cooling to his open-door policy. He’s compassionate, gee-whillikers chatty, and perhaps politically foolhardy in his principled defense of charity and brotherhood, especially when it extends to a convicted sex offender. He’s also, as the film’s unnecessarily rigged narrative reveals, a deeply conflicted individual.
Moss, who shoots the film himself verité-style, gets points for his on-the-ground look at the sacrifices made by those seeking a living (while leaving families behind) and at the day-to-day problems raised when merciless economic interests come into play. But Moss’s surprise revelation of Reinke’s sexuality and a scandal involving the church’s male guests is simplistic, leaving behind an observant film that suddenly feels incomplete and compromised by its misplaced dramatic goals.