Fatherhood gets an incisive examination in “West of Sunshine,” the short, sharp and rewarding feature debut of Australian writer-director Jason Raftopoulos. Set during one day in the life of a working-class Melbourne dad who’s forced to cart his young son around town while scrambling to pay gambling debts to a loan shark, this compact piece of Aussie social realism will appeal to discerning audiences and could find a profitable niche in local art houses. A small-scale film that’s very well performed by lesser-known actors and some non-professionals, “West of Sunshine” faces a challenge to break through theatrically in overseas markets (and doesn’t yet have domestic release plans), though its exposure at the Venice film festival should attract fest attention at least.
At the outset, all that’s known about Jim (Damian Hill) is that he drives an immaculately maintained 1970s muscle car and works for a courier company. He’s also $15,000 in the hole to Banos (Tony Nikolakopoulos), a fearsome loan shark who wants his cash by day’s end — or else. When asked by workmate Steve (Arthur Angel) how he’s going to settle the sizeable debt, Jimmy’s optimistic reply is “race two at Ballarat.” If his nag doesn’t win, there’s no plan B.
There’s also no plan B when Jim is reminded by ex-wife Karen (Faye Smythe) that school is on holiday and today he’s supposed to be minding their young son, Alex (Ty Perham, real-life stepson of Hill). With company rules preventing the boy from traveling in a work vehicle, Jim bundles his parcels and an unimpressed Alex into his beloved car and sets off on his rounds.
In lovely early scenes, Alex accompanies dad on deliveries to small factories and shops in Melbourne’s inner-city market district, where many owners and staff appear as themselves. A short sequence in which a tailor measures Alex for a shirt beautifully captures one of those moments in a child’s life when their view of the adult world has suddenly expanded.
These upbeat moments are neatly balanced by Jim’s increasingly desperate situation. Even when he wins a large amount of money, his crippling addiction to gambling rises to the surface, turning victory into an abysmal loss. As the clock winds down, he’s reduced to pathetically asking Steve for a loan. Eventually, Jim turns to Mel (Kat Stewart), an old friend whose drug-dealing operation represents Jim’s last and very risky chance to raise quick cash.
Arriving at a moment when parenting and child development are being closely analyzed and discussed, “West of Sunshine” is a timely and intelligent essay on the eternal theme of how fathers can both inspire and alienate their sons. One of the screenplay’s most pleasing aspects is the gradual release of information about Jim’s difficult childhood and the symbolic importance of his prized car. Whether he possesses the courage to break an intergenerational cycle of abandonment and disappointment and give Alex a better chance in life is the story’s potent emotional core.
Hill is terrific as a fundamentally decent guy whose weaknesses have snowballed to the point of placing his son in danger. Newcomer Perham gives a marvelously natural performance as a lad whose feels everything from deep shame to great love for his father during a day he’ll never forget.
Smoothly filmed by DP Thom Neal in back alleys and grungy urban locations, and snappily cut by editor Paul Rowe, “West of Sunshine” is only slightly let down by the overuse of music in its second half. Lisa Gerrard and James Orr’s eclectic, splendidly propulsive score is put to fine use in the early running. It’s laid on a tad thick in the closing stages, where fine acting and memorable dialogue don’t really need any assistance to make the emotional impact the film is striving for.