Lensed in attractive widescreen around the suburbs of Melbourne, West of Sunshine is the assured feature debut of writer/director Jason Raftopolous and stars the late Damian Hill as a down-on-his-luck father who spends a hectic day struggling to repay a debt.
Hill plays Jim, an inveterate gambler whose addiction has sent him spiraling to the bottom. Having lost his job as a mechanic, he now works as a poorly-paid courier.
He owes $15,000 to his former boss, Banos (Tony Nikolakopoulos), a ruthless loan shark — and Banos wants his money back now. To further complicate matters, Jim has been enlisted by his ex-wife (Faye Smith) to take care of their rebellious young son Alex (Hill’s real-life stepson, Ty Perham) for the day.
He tries to palm Alex off on his girlfriend (Eliza D’Souza), but the boy will have none of it. Jim has no choice but to take his son on his rounds. The delivery company won’t let him drive their van with a minor aboard, so he must bring out his pride and joy — a vintage Ford Fairlane previously owned by his absent father.
When they stop at a pub for lunch, Jim can’t resist betting on the horses, and he wins enough money to pay back Banos and then some. He’s a compulsively self-sabotaging type, though, and he continues gambling until he’s lost it all. Desperate, he turns to his drug dealing ex-girlfriend, Mel (Kat Stewart), for help. She offers to let him make some deliveries for her to earn the required cash, but he bollocks that up, too. The only asset he has left is the car — and he just can’t bring himself to sell it.
With a plot that references De Sica’s neorealistic classic Bicycle Thieves, Raftopolous’s slice-of-life drama is compact (clocking in at a lean 78 minutes), but still deeply felt, thanks to its convincing father-son relationship. Alex knows Jim is a terminal screw-up but loves him just the same. This doesn’t prevent them from squabbling, however. At one point, Alex jumps out of the car and runs down the street in a rage, but Jim follows him and they patch things up. Ironically, this becomes a memorable day for both of them, and the film’s denouement is both appropriate and emotionally satisfying.
Hill, who tragically passed away last year at age 42, knew this character well. Jim is so familiar with being kicked when he’s down that he’s become numb to it. Indeed, when he’s literally being kicked by Banos’s goons, he barely reacts. In his film debut, Perham is also affecting as Alex.
West of Sunshine opens theatrically on Jan. 25 and is available on VOD platforms.