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A pastor helps oil boom workers in 'The Overnighters'

Tom Long
The Detroit News

'The Overnighters' starts out as a documentary about crass capitalism, the plight of the chronically unemployed and one man's fight to help other men. All valid, vital subjects.

But as this documentary moves on, it becomes much more than that. It develops into a study of obsession, hypocrisy, righteousness and self-doubt, questioning motive and then gob-smacking the audience with the wholly unexpected.

From beginning to end, though, it follows Americans adrift, looking to make something of themselves, struggling to believe in their own worth and potential.

At the center of it all is Jay Reinke, pastor of a Lutheran church in small town North Dakota. Fracking oil rigs have struck gold and suddenly the small town is the center of an oil boom. Thousands of unemployed people from throughout the country head there when they hear about an abundance of high-paying, low qualification jobs.

The problem is, it's a small town — there's nowhere for these new immigrants to live. Rents skyrocket, mobile home parks fill up. So Reinke decides his church and church parking lot can become a refuge for those who can't find a place to stay. Soon he has people — the overnighters — sleeping on cots, on the floor, in their cars and campers in the parking lot.

Not surprisingly, his neighbors are less than thrilled, as are many of his parishioners. A school teacher is murdered, the local paper lists the names of sex offenders who've moved to the area, and the good people of North Dakota worry about the endless stream of strangers walking their streets.

Reinke continues his mission, even taking one sex offender home to live with his wife and three kids. He butts heads with the city council and planning commission as a law is passed that will close down his program. He goes door-to-door pleading with unhappy neighbors. Isn't this what Christian charity is supposed to be about?

The camera follows some of the overnighters: a young kid from Wisconsin who misses his girlfriend and their baby; a sorrowful meth head who stops for guidance but then moves on; a guy who's given up hope and turns on Reinke; a right-hand man who becomes a wrong-hand man.

These are moving portraits of mostly lost souls, but writer-director Jesse Moss realizes that it's Reinke's personal struggle that matters most. His family is supportive, but he's rarely there. He becomes ragged from the stress and frustration, even turns mean and angry at times. Is he searching for his own redemption?

The film could use a little more context — as fast as this boom happened it's sure to fade away someday, and what happens then to the town and the workers, not to mention the surrounding prairie? Still, this is a stirring portrait of a struggling man's efforts to help others struggling around him and to face his own motives and life. In the end, love hurts.

'The Overnighters'

GRADE: B

Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and brief strong language

Running time: 107 minutes

"The Overnighters" (PG-13) In this documentary a pastor in a small oil boom North Dakota town helps house thousands of people who come seeking employment. A searing portrait of lost American souls. (107 minutes) GRADE: B