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‘The Overnighters’ is superior documentary filmmaking

Date: 1/29/2015

An amazing documentary and the return of a beloved television series are covered in this week’s film review column.

The Overnighters

When I interviewed director John Landis (Animal House,” “Blues Brother,” “Trading Places”) he spoke to be about a documentary that he had shot. He went into the project with a preconceived idea about the subject and said that his assumptions were soon turned upside down as events unfolded.

I love a documentary that plays with an audience’s expectations and “The Overnighters” does just that. It is a compelling 21st Century story with an American theme as old as our republic, but it has a major twist.

Our history is dotted with events such as the gold rushes in California and Alaska to which men seeking to work are drawn. The current oil boom in North Dakota will be viewed as one of those events with unemployed people from around the country coming to not necessarily to seek a fortune, but simply to have a steady paycheck.

The small town of Williston, ND, is one of the centers for the oil industry and while the influx of money into the community may be seen as positive, the thousands of people who arrive at the community looking for work are not.

Some of the men are living in their cars or trucks as they seek work. Others are homeless. There are concerns about crime and possible sex offenders now living in the town.

Jay Reinke, the pastor of Concordia Lutheran Church, though, sees a mission to help the men and participate in an effort to build understanding in the community about their plight. Reinke believes that as a Christian he is duty-bound to provide what housing he can in the church to the men he calls “the overnighters.”

There is the young man from Wisconsin who wants to support his girlfriend and child. There is the electrician from Georgia desperate to send home money to his family and after landing a job lives in a garden shed. There is the convicted felon who is chosen to assist the pastor with the program and sees it as his salvation.

The program creates controversy within the town and the church and the film questions the nature of Christianity and what it means.

Director Jesse Moss shot the film for two years, living for a time in the church himself. He does not pass judgment on the men, many of whom are sincere in their efforts to find jobs, while others are plagued with problems or have different agendas. He simply records what happens, which is heartbreaking.

Moss presents a reality that often people simply don’t want to acknowledge. He tells his story in a no-holds-barred manner that will make most audiences flinch at times in reaction to the men and their stories.

Simply put, this is superior filmmaking.

The Wonder Years

Nostalgia is a funny thing. In the 1970s, the 1950s seemed attractive and in the 1980s, it was the 1960s turn to rise up in the public consciousness.

If there was a television series that handled the fragile process of looking back with both a blend of love and a critical eye, it was “The Wonder Years.”

Running from 1988 to 1993, the series looked at a middle family class family reacting to the events of the 1960s.

The show was a classy, well-written series starring Fred Savage as its focal point, Kevin Arnold and Josh Saviano and Danica McKellar as his friends. While the show was very funny, it was also serious enough to present issues revolving around feminism, the Vietnam War and growing up.

The producers allowed the youthful characters to grow up before the camera adding a level of realism that many contemporary comedies did not have. They also were not afraid to present drama along with the comedy.

“The Wonder Years” is a show that well worth re-discovering and has been recently released for the first time on DVD. It comes in volumes by season with each multi-disc volume loaded with extras. It also is available in one collection with all 115 episodes on 26 DVDs with more than 23 hours of bonus features.

That collection comes packaged in a small metal high school locker complete with magnetic stickers and several booklets on the show’s production.