Sundance 2014: Compelling Modern Storytelling in 'The Overnighters'
by Alex Billington
February 2, 2014
While attending a film festival it's always exciting to hear buzz about films that may not have been on our radar before. One film in particular at Sundance 2014 that I kept hearing my colleagues raving about was actually a documentary, one called The Overnighters. It took a little while but I finally caught up with the film after the fest and was so taken aback, so impressed and surprised and genuinely moved by what I saw, I couldn't help but write about it. Overnighters is a refreshingly modern documentary, an utterly compelling, nuanced film that precariously balances the big questions of one of the great dilemmas of this day and age.
As is an important aspect of any moving cinematic experience, The Overnighters is truly a film best seen without knowing anything about the story beforehand. It opens as a contemporary documentary about the struggles of today's working class, focusing on one small town community in North Dakota, and specifically one pastor of a church there. The filmmakers fully step out of the frame and let the real world characters speak for themselves, and suddenly we're caught up in another truth can be stranger than fiction narrative that unfolds so perfectly in front of us. At some point the filmmakers realized the story they'd captured and figured out how to put together a remarkably compelling doc. Which is exactly what they do, and it delivers.
There were so many times I kept thinking, out loud, "I can't believe what I am seeing." I couldn't believe that these people existed, that this was a real story being capture (and not a dramatically staged reality show), that the filmmakers were getting the footage they were getting, and that everything was happening in this way. There were a few moments I had a huge grin, as I understood exactly why this was getting the praise at Sundance it was getting - it's that outstanding. It's a shining, refined example of how to make a compelling doc in 2014. How to find a story, how to let the subjects tell it, how to use footage from any source (iPhones to conventional crews) and how to intrigue the viewer and take them for a wildly captivating real world ride.
It's impressive to see just how much this documentary approaches and challenges so many of the hardest questions facing much of America's population today - in terms of a contemporary religious understanding, what it means to be Christian, and how a community reacts to people in various leadership positions when they come into question. At the start I knew this was an extremely intelligently well-made documentary, but by the end I realized it was also a thoughtful story, the kind that delicately to question our own beliefs, and what they mean, and how they affect others around us. To bring that much nuanced introspection and to also tell a captivating story in the context of one independently-produced doc is a fantastic accomplishment.
My hope is that The Overnighters can somehow make an impact on the world, and in a perfect world will find the right kind of audience that will have their buttons pressed by the questions it asks and the situation it puts viewers in. At the least, cinephiles and documentary fans will find something refreshing and modern in its concept and execution, never getting too complex, never trying to be anything bigger than what it is, yet telling a story that is completely engrossing and thought-provoking in multiple ways; a documentary that deserves the acclaim it has received, and will continue to receive. See this doc, and then talk about it.
Alex's Sundance 2014 Rating: 9 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing