Last Sunday I was finally able to catch a screening at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival (on the very last day no less) and, as always, it was quite an experience. I’ve seen some great films at the PFF over the years, though never as many as I would like. Last year I even got the chance to volunteer as a ticket taker, which I would highly recommend; you’ll meet some lovely people and earn some free passes. The PFF is not nearly as prestigious as Sundance, TIFF or NYFF, but seeing a film at one of the the festival’s numerous venues, from the Ritz to the Roxy (the Philadelphia Film Society’s new flagship theater), always feels like an event. A few years back I caught a screening of Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours with James Franco several months before its wide release. Last year I had the privilege of seeing Terrence Malick’s painterly 1978 masterpiece Days of Heaven, which looks and feels like something that should be on display at the Barnes. This year I was as pleased as ever with my singular selection, the heartbreaking and endlessly relevant documentary The Overnighters.
Jesse Moss’s film focuses on both a town and a man: Williston, North Dakota and local Pastor Jay Reinke. An unexpected oil rush in the midst of a natural gas boom renders the town overrun by busloads of men fallen on hard times, searching for a new beginning, many of whom are left stranded and homeless when they don’t find it. It’s Pastor Reinke who creates a makeshift shelter in the repurposed facility of his Concordia Lutheran Church in the face of vocal outcries from the community and, to a large extent, his own congregation. The Overnighters gives ample screen time to these wayward men, and their stories could spawn a documentary unto itself, but this film is ultimately about the struggles and motives of Reinke. While it touches on big picture environmental concerns and failures of the justice system, this film works best as a character study of Reinke himself, a figure of such desperation, joy and sadness that one could easily imagine finding him between the pages of a tragic novel.
Some cursory research suggests that this is by far the most serious work Moss has done to date (though according to IMDB he directed something called Extreme Civil War Reenactors, which understandably piqued my interest). After the success of The Overnighters (it earned a Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance) I’m excited to see what other opportunities come his way. The film remains on task while still providing some gorgeous and haunting imagery of the desolate North Dakota landscape and captures moments of genuine intimacy: a dire family meeting in Reinke’s living room; Reinke’s wife, faltering in her support as she speaks to the filmmaker in her kitchen, flipping burgers on a hotplate; the Pastor, gleefully pulling off to the shoulder of a lonely highway, waving, childlike, to the passing passengers of “an Amtrak”, suspending for a moment the gravity of his calling.
This is a documentary for people who don’t like documentaries; a work of drama and humanity that will suck you in from its opening scenes of Reinke processing new overnighters, running down the rules (“no profanity!”) and listening to their stories. Seeing this man in his element, his machine of service firing on all cylinders, one can almost understand his compulsions. But a shocking turn by the film’s end reveals the complexities of the Pastor’s plight, giving new meaning to everything that came before. I’m very much hoping (and am confident) that The Overnighters will get some awards attention this season, the biggest benefit of which would be a wide release. It’s a shame that so many quality films like this run the risk of never quite seeing the light of day, but that’s the beauty of attending an event like the PFF: getting the chance to see exceptional work, unhindered by the filter of commercial viability. If you get the chance to attend next year’s festival, do it. If you get the chance to see The Overnighters, do it. You won’t be sorry you did.