Film and TV

Ethics and Economics Clash in The Overnighters

Quick: Name the most expensive housing market in America. If you said New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, you couldn't be farther from the truth — literally. Each is more than 1,500 miles away from Williston, North Dakota. In four years, the population has doubled as newcomers gold-rush to work the newly discovered Bakken Shale formation, the largest oil find in U.S. history. But the average cost of a one-bedroom apartment is $2,394 a month — almost $1,000 more than the equivalent space in Manhattan.

Jesse Moss's documentary The Overnighters is a heart-wrencher about the clash between economics and ethics. To the locals, Williston is under attack from the hordes who have flooded their once-quiet town. ("They rape, pillage and burn, and then they leave," spits one woman.) To the invaders, Williston is the end of the line, the last domino to tip over in the chain of disasters that began when the recession wrecked blue-collar life.

We see the transplants decamp for Williston in video diaries in which they cross their fingers about the jobs they hope they'll find. And we see them when they arrive: homeless, hated by the community, and clustered in the corners of Williston's Concordia Lutheran Church. Pastor Jay Reinke, a soft-voiced father of four, has given them his blessing to sleep anywhere they fit.

Reinke's got an unshakable belief that Williston's crisis could be cured if the townspeople practiced what Jesus preached and opened their hearts (and homes) to strangers. Love thy neighbors, he pleads, even if they're squatting in a van. Can this gentle, optimistic man change the minds of the town? The Overnighters might sound like a news blurb you'd skim over, but it unfolds into an epic tragedy.

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Amy Nicholson was chief film critic at LA Weekly from 2013 to 2016. Her work also appeared in the other Voice Media Group publications — the Village Voice, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press, Dallas Observer and OC Weekly. Nicholson’s criticism was recognized by the Los Angeles Press Club and the Association of Alternative Newsmedia. Her first book, Tom Cruise: Anatomy of an Actor, was published in 2014 by Cahiers du Cinema.