West of Sunshine
Damian Hill, Ty Perham, Kaarin Fairfax, Kat Stewart
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Small scale, big-hearted, thematically ambitious and formally deft…
Inveterate gambler Jim (Pawno‘s Damian Hill) has a serious problem: he needs to pay off his loan shark (Tony Nikolakopoulos) by the end of the day. The odds of that being accomplished are pretty remote. Jim’s working as a courier, struggling to make ends meet, and is saddled with looking after his young son, Alex (Ty Perham, Hill’s real life stepson) for the day. Of course, the real stakes in West of Sunshine aren’t whether or not Jim can scare up the cash he needs, but whether he can maintain any kind of meaningful connection with the kid since the breakdown of his relationship with the boy’s mother.
It’s easy to imagine a dumber, meaner, and less successful version of West of Sunshine, one that highlights the seedy underworld elements of the story in service to cheap melodrama and to the detriment of real thematic heft. Luckily, first time feature director Jason Raftopolous is drawing on a deeper and more interesting vein of cinematic inspiration than Quentin Tarantino or even Andrew Dominik, whose 2000 crime chronicle Chopper was set in a comparable Melbourne milieu. Rather, in expanding and repurposing his 2011 short Father’s Day, Raftopolous has looked to the Italian neorealists for stylistic grist, and you could make a case for the works of American indie auteur John Cassavetes as well.
In concrete terms, that means West of Sunshine takes place in real, working Melbourne locations and is populated with real, working, Melbourne people – Raftopoulos fills his ensemble with non-actors and lenses in real, open businesses in order to get the grainy, textured tone he’s after. You feel the length of Jim’s day and the weight of his burden the way you feel your eyeballs grit up after you’ve pushed it too hard for too long, and you can smell the cigarette smoke clouding outside the street corner pubs and the diesel fumes from idling trucks. The film is grounded.
And yet it also soars, thanks in no small part to James Orr (2.22) and Lisa Gerrard’s (Gladiator) beautiful score, which adds a luminous, ethereal counterpoint to the action of the drama, but also to Raftopolous’ understanding that he’s grappling with archetypal themes here: fathers and sons, freedom and responsibility, guilt and redemption, sex and death. That these play out in this inner urban microcosm makes them no less heady or universal, and the director demonstrates his understanding with a scattering of religious iconography throughout the film.
Which might spill over into pretentiousness if the proceedings weren’t anchored by fantastic understated turns from Hill and Perham, the latter making his screen debut here, along with a supporting cast that includes Underbelly‘s Kat Stewart and veteran Kaarin Fairfax. A screenwriter himself, Hill has carved out a niche (or perhaps he’s had the niche thrust upon him – he’s got a look) playing put upon, inarticulate working class guys who are trying their best to get ahead of their own considerable flaws, and with that in mind the role of Jimmy fits him like a court appearance suit. For Perham’s part, he imbues Alex with just the right amount of unconditional love for his old man – tempered with the growing suspicion that he may be a bit of a terminal stuff-up. In combination, their dynamic never feels less than absolutely authentic – a crucial element in what is almost a two man show.
Small scale, big-hearted, thematically ambitious and formally deft, West of Sunshine is a nigh-perfect slice of inner city Australian cinema that manages to dodge the dour, self-serious pitfalls that so often dog its genre mates, while at the same time remaining absolutely committed to its characters, themes, and intents. It is, make no mistake, a minor miracle.