When the fracking boom hit North Dakota a few years ago, a flood of hopeful oilfield workers converged on the remote, dreary town of Williston, which had precious little available housing. Some of those applicants found jobs, unpleasant-looking work that paid well. Successful or not, many of the outsiders lived in their cars, and many of those without cars found refuge in a local Lutheran church. Thus the setting of the documentary, The Overnighters.
Pastor Jay Reinke is the main character here, host and shepherd to an adopted flock of last-hopers. He takes the mission of Christian charity very much to heart; plus, his own sense of brokenness bonds him with the out-of-towners, many of whom are fighting their own demons. But the townspeople, prompted by an inflammatory local newspaper, work up a lather of fear over the strangers in their midst.
The film is an emotional ride, playing out much like a narrative film (although there is a final-reel twist that is too sudden and ill-timed to fit into a fictional story). It examines the desperation of the marginal and the nervous xenophobia of the shaky middle class, with a strain of America’s fixation on sex thrown in for good measure. It asks worthwhile questions, and honors their complexity by not answering them.
* * *
I had every expectation of loving The Internet’s Own Boy, a documentary on Aaron Swartz, the Silicon Valley enterpreneur who took his own life at age 26. A computer prodigy, he made his fortune as one of the founders of Reddit. This allowed him to devote himself to improving the world through technology. One of his ideas was a free encyclopedia, edited by lay people (an inspiration remarkably close to Wikipedia); another of his causes was to make public information more readily available. In particular, he wanted to free up court records and academic articles, which he found to be locked up by monopolies behind expensive paywalls. His hacking into the academic system brought him to the attention of a federal prosecutor, who appears to have concluded that a brutal public hanging might be just the thing to discourage other hackers. The assault by this zealot may have driven Swartz to kill himself.
It’s a gripping story, but two aspects of the film’s tone turned me off. First, the movie is bathed in sentiment, with an extensive segment devoted to home movies of Swartz as a precious, precocious widdle boy, and a reliance on the narrative voice of his two brothers throughout. Second, and even more off-putting, is the overbearing score. Much of the story is fascinating, but even if you’re not paying attention, the score will tell you exactly what you should be feeling at all times. Ugh.