|Courtesy of Drafthouse Films|
2014, 95 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
Jesse Moss' The Overnighters has been astounding audiences ever since its premiere at Sundance in January. The film tells the story of a small town in North Dakota that experiences a boom because oil is found beneath it. Because of the boom, overnighters flood into the town. The local pastor, Jay Reinke, takes them in and allows them to stay in the church, on its parking lot, and in his home, which causes tensions with the town.
I frequently feel that great documentaries are more compelling than great narratives because there is no substitute for real life. However, great as many documentaries are, there are few that can actually be called "profound" or can change your perception on life. The Overnighters is an example of the aforementioned kind of documentary. Moss approaches this material with respect and humanity. Many of the overnighters are felons and sex offenders. While many of these men have had terrible pasts and committed heinous acts, they are never shown as bad people, just human beings, which is how Reinke sees them.
One of the most revealing scenes in The Overnighters is one in which Reinke allows one of the overnighters to stay in his home. This man is a sex offender. Our image of a sex offender is someone who has committed a horrible crime (and that is the case much of the time). However, this man is a registered sex offender because he had sex with his 16-year-old girlfriend when he was 18-years-old. These were simply two people in love doing something that two people in love tend to do. A scene like this really puts these men's lives into perspective and calls on us to look past labels and histories to find the human inside. In this respect, The Overnighters can be compared to Edgar Baren's masterpiece, the Oscar-nominated short documentary "Prison Terminal" since it asks us to see everyone as a human, not as a label.
Documentaries frequently change course as they're being made. Lauren Greenfield's The Queen of Versailles is a perfect example of that. That being said, I've don't believe I've ever seen a documentary change because of one last-minute revelation. This is precisely what happens in The Overnighters. The last "act" of this film has a few revelations that rival those of The Sixth Sense or The Skin I Live In for their ability to change your perception of what came before. These revelations show the complexity of humanity and how many layers and faces each of us have.
Overall, with or without the revelations, The Overnighters is a documentary as profound as The Act of Killing and as humane as "Prison Terminal". Moss' film is a statement on the illusiveness of the American Dream, a call for compassion, and a brilliant piece of filmmaking. Watch for this when Drafthouse Films releases later this year. I will not be surprised if The Overnighters is nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar at the 2015 Oscars. It's fairly obvious that Drafthouse will make a push given, according to their site, the fact that they're releasing in "Winter 2014."