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Boom and Fear on the Great Plains

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Pastor Jay Reinke stands inside the doorway of an abandoned church. | DRAFTHOUSE FILMS
Pastor Jay Reinke stands inside the doorway of an abandoned church. | DRAFTHOUSE FILMS

BY STEVE ERICKSON | The North Dakota oil fields have created a situation unique in post-recession America: a place where jobs are plentiful. As such, they’ve drawn men — and, to a lesser extent, women — from all over the country, resulting in rising rents and other disruptions in small towns with large influxes of new arrivals.

Jesse Moss’ documentary “The Overnighters” depicts one man, pastor Jay Reinke, trying to create a sense of community under difficult circumstances. He allows homeless men — although he prefers the term “Overnighters” and, in fact, some of them have left behind homes in other parts of the country — to sleep in cars and RVs in his church’s parking lot. He even turns the church into a makeshift shelter. While Reinke preaches the gospel of sharing, many of his neighbors see the newcomers instead as sources of pollution and potential crime. “The Overnighters” starts off as a hopeful tale about Christian values and ends as a story about the dissolution of community.

“The Overnighters” takes place in the small town of Williston, where tens of thousands of desperate people have traveled to look for work in the nearby Bakken shale oil field. But they discover that there just aren’t enough jobs to satisfy everyone’s needs, even in a boomtown. As one person says, if they don’t find work within their first 48 hours in town, they’re not likely to find it at all.

“The Overnighters” explores limits of Christian compassion, community in 21st century America

At Concordia Lutheran Church, Reinke strives to treat the new arrivals in a dignified manner. This eventually angers the church’s congregants, the town’s newspaper, and the City Council. The problems seem to peak when the Williston Herald learns about a sex offender living in the church, but things get even worse from there.

From everything we can see of Reinke, he seems like a good man. Yet he has a repeated tendency toward strange decisions and unpleasant fallings-out with people around him. He’s doing his best to reconcile Christian values with the damaged world of modern-day America. If “The Overnighters” got a wide American release, I wonder if it would be embraced by the “faith-based” audience that made hits of such films as “God’s Not Dead.” While not particularly explicit at all, it doesn’t depict a PG-rated reality or offer easy answers to spiritual yearning. Yet it’s the best American film to address the issue in years.

“The Overnighters” is fairly open in addressing the challenge posed by the presence of sex offenders. For reasons never fully explained, Reinke decides to open his home to Keith Graves., a man who claims he made it onto the sex offender registry for having consensual sex with a 16-year-old when he was 18. The whole family embraces Graves, even Reinke’s teenage daughters. The local paper finds out that the Overnighters program offers shelter to sex offenders and publishes their addresses, listing the church as one man’s home. In the wake of this exposure, its neighbors grow increasingly hostile and one of the church’s workers belatedly comes clean about his record, which winds up costing him his job.

The film raises the question of how far Christian compassion should be extended and is honest about the price to be paid when people decide you’ve gone too far.

There’s a gay angle to “The Overnighte­rs,” but discussing it would be a spoiler, as it’s not revealed until the last 15 minutes. That said, there are clues planted throughout that blossom in retrospect. The version of Christianity practiced by Concordia doesn’t outwardly condemn homosexuality, but it still leads its gays to talk of themselves as “broken” and speak in a stilted vocabulary of “same-sex attraction.” Positioning this narrative development so close to the film’s end completely changes one’s understanding of the story it tells and frankly feels a bit coy. I’d like to see its implications played out at greater length.

When Bruce Springsteen sang “We Take Care of Our Own,” I figured he had to be at least partially ironic because America lets its poor fall through the cracks left and right. Just go for a long walk in Manhattan and count the number of times you get asked for change. In America, the Christian right has been successful at rebranding Christianity in its own image.

Reinke was attempting to do something different, more akin to the true spirit of Jesus. He wound up finding his own reflection in the men he tried to help. If “The Overnighters” is accurate, Americans’ sense of community has been sacrificed to tabloid fearmongering. It’s a despairing look at how we got this way.

THE OVERNIGHTERS | Directed by Jesse Moss | Drafthouse Films | Opens Oct. 10 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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