The protagonist of West of Sunshine, Jim (Damian Hill), is not having a good day. A courier and perpetual fuck-up, he’s a grifter who has alienated all those close to him and used up all his good luck. Having long been in debt with some nasty creditors at their wits end, he scrambles to acquire $15, 000 in a day, all the while looking after his tween son, Alex (Ty Perham). With an increasingly unimpressed Alex in tow, Jim goes from place to place and scheme to scheme, attempting to rebuild their rocky relationship and make sure their future doesn’t crash and burn.
Working from his own script, director Jason Raftopoulos shot this solid realist drama on location in Melbourne, working with a small crew and some non-professional actors in the tradition of Italian neo-realism. It’s a tribute to the struggles of fatherhood that doubles as a coming-of-age story. It’s also an ode to the kind of filmmaking style seen in the 70s and 80s Australian New Wave, where small, simple, grounded stories about genuine characters still had a sizeable hold in cinemas.
Raftopoulos trains a warm but critical eye on imperfect father figures, and how hard it is for children to shake off their imprint. Jim is not a particularly likable man; he’s manipulative, short-tempered, and has a penchant for self-sabotage. He does, however, have an unfailing hope that it can all get better, and this keeps him and the audience going. Raftopoulos situates the story within a single day, granting a feeling of immediacy and forcing the audience to catch up to the unfolding crisis. This isn’t too difficult though; the occasionally clunky dialogue beats you over the head with Jim’s personality and reputation, particularly in the introduction. The other character can’t seem to remember his first name, as they end all their sentences directed at him with it, and a few characters (who are never seen again) practically yell at the audience that he “always has something on the go”. There are also some relationships that lose their charge due to the ambiguity; it’s unclear if Jim and his wife are separated, or estranged, or something else entirely.
The streets of Melbourne are filmed with an eye for both their beauty and their ugliness by cinematographer Thom Neal. Neal employs handheld cameras, natural lens flares, and slow motion close ups to sell a heightened level of intimacy and realism. Jim and Alex’s irritated bickering ensure that their relationship is endlessly fraying—Raftopoulos and Neal also convey this through numerous cuts to the rusted warehouses and construction sites scattered around the city. Like many modern Australian films, West of Sunshine deals with some dark subject matter—addiction, poverty, crime, and realising your parents are flawed people—but like Jim, it retains an optimistic outlook through thick and thin. The filmmaker’s affection for these characters shines brightly, and it’s clear he hopes that everything will turn out all right for them. Actions that you would expect to have disastrous consequences don’t turn out the way you would expect.
While Damian Hill’s performance doesn’t have the charm and confidence I expected from a lifelong hustler like this, it does still have an authenticity and ease, that believably spirals into desperation. He and Ty Perham have some wonderful scenes together, most likely aided by their own status as real-life step-father and son. Kat Stewart makes a significant impression in a small role as one of Jim’s lost flames, now determined to care for her own family however she can. With only a few scenes, she creates an entire lost history between her and Jim just with her eyes.
One of the film’s diversions from realist tradition is an extensively featured non-diegetic soundtrack, which is also one of its weaker points. It works well to set up the story and mood in the first act, but its overuse in the finale becomes overbearing and mawkish; a silent or more minimalist approach might have been more convincing.
Despite this, West of Sunshine is a tightly paced work that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s an accomplished debut for Jason Raftopoulos, and a welcome relief from the tide of similar, exhaustingly grim indie dramas that this country pumps out every year. While the film is small in budget and scope, it should appeal to everyone—we all, whether we like it or not, know a guy like Jim.
West of Sunshine is in select cinemas now.