The labor migrations that have shaped the United States are far from done. They're a charged reality that continues to transform lives and communities, as an exceptional new documentary brings home powerfully.
Working alone, filmmaker Jesse Moss implanted himself amid an influx of hopeful newcomers to a tiny oil-patch town in North Dakota. "The Overnighters" is his intimate and often wrenching chronicle of lives in transition: With not enough work to go around and few housing options, the job seekers find themselves within a boomtown's limits but as outsiders looking in.
The director zeros in on embattled clergyman Jay Reinke, who gives the would-be workers shelter and a sympathetic ear — to his congregation's rising alarm. As men from across the country and beyond descend on the town of Williston, drawn by eureka reports of oil drilling (thanks to fracking), the pastor opens his Lutheran church and its parking lot to those who need a place to sleep. Reinke feeds and counsels them, and his wife and children support his commitment and even welcome a few of the men into their home.
Reinke is the kind of man who greets the morning with a song and who can't stop himself from waving to a passing Amtrak train. But he's no Pollyanna: Witness his reaction when a neighbor calls the migrants "trash" and later when a ground-shifting scandal erupts. Enemies arise and lessons in tolerance come full circle in breathtaking ways.
Moss' film addresses many things, not least second chances. It's the rare documentary in which truly unpredictable events unfold and no assumption is safe.
"He'll take you as you are," a beneficiary of Reinke's compassion says. In a film of disquieting moral complexity, that's not just a statement but a challenge.
MPAA rating: PG-13 for mature thematic material, brief strong language.
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes.