'West of Sunshine': Film Review | Venice 2017

West of Sunshine -Still 2 -H 2017
Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival
A road trip toward filial connection.

A courier tries to fend off his creditors while babysitting his son in this Melbourne-set debut feature.

The testy dynamic between a down-on-his-luck father and his prepubescent son is given a sweeping panoramic treatment in Australian director Jason Raftopoulos' debut feature West of Sunshine. Unfolding over one day and clearly indebted to The Bicycle Thief, this story of a courier racing against the clock to pay off a debt boasts a vivid sense of place, as well as some awkward dialogue and a lead performance not quite flavorful enough to make the character's self-sabotage compelling.

Shot in the suburbs and inner city of Melbourne, the town's ubiquitous cranes and construction sites form an elegant widescreen metaphor for the film's endlessly fraying central relationship, much in need of maintenance. After premiering in Venice's Orrizonti section, this handsomely lensed slice of life will likely provoke keener interest among programmers than international distribs.

After the Footscray-set drama Pawno last year, star Damian Hill would seem to have a monopoly on sad-sacks who can't get out of their own way. He plays Jim, a heavily tattooed ex-mechanic now working as a courier, and endlessly harassed: by his ex-wife for being late to pick up the kid, by his boss for being late to work and by Banos (Tony Nikolakopoulos), the owner of the auto shop where Jim used to work, who wants the cash he's owed and wants it now. The exact nature of the debt is never revealed, and the director's own script is content to leave certain details, such as Jim's marital status (is he divorced or just in the doghouse?), ambiguous.

Hill is joined by his own real-life stepson Ty Perham, making his screen debut as Alex, the youngster just old enough to realize Dad is not to be relied upon. When Jim is told by his boss that he can't use the company van if his son is tagging along, he’s forced to wheel out his prize possession: an immaculately maintained vintage car originally owned by his father, who abandoned the family when Jim was roughly the same age as his son is now. As Alex, newcomer Perham brings both sweetness and prickliness to the role, alert to his father's ways but tender all the same.

Editor Paul Rowe cycles through a montage of the boys dropping off parcels to gyms and health-food outlets before they head to a local pub for lunch and a flutter on the horses. Jim bets big and wins big, earning all the money he owes and more in seconds, but he keeps drinking and keeps gambling while his boy looks on, and pretty soon it's all gone.

Desperate, he turns to an old girlfriend he hasn't seen in years, a middle-class mother of two (Underbelly's Kat Stewart) running drugs out of a bakery. Jim agrees to do deliveries for her in exchange for a loan, and father and son start making the rounds, with predictably disastrous results. Jim's general hopelessness is total, and Hill's monotone performance makes it difficult to care — a con man with no confidence just isn't much fun.

The expansiveness of DP Thom Neal's sun-kissed cinematography is bolstered by a vocals-heavy score from James Orr and Lisa Gerrard, who imbue this two-hander with some of the big-canvas gravitas Gerrard's voice lent to films such as Gladiator and The Insider. West of Sunshine's willingness to claim equivalent emotional if not historical importance is underlined by the director's frequent use of slow motion, with sequences playing out as though they're memories imprinted on Alex's brain for life.

Running to a lean 78 minutes, this road trip around the byways of Australia’s southern capital finally climaxes in a moment of symbolism that will surprise no one: Jim's car, his last link to his own absent father, comes into play as a bargaining chip. Rejecting the past to ensure his future, a bruised Jim and his boy end up riding home together on a bicycle, and it's to the film's credit that the allusion feels earned and organic rather than tacked on.

Production company: Exile Entertainment
Cast: Damian Hill, Ty Perham, Kat Stewart, Arthur Angel, Tony Nikolakopoulos, Faye Smythe, Eliza D’Souza, Liam Seymour, Christopher Laino, Kaarin Fairfax
Director-screenwriter: Jason Raftopoulos
Producers: Alexandros Ouzas, Jason Raftopoulos
Director of photography: Thom Neal
Production designer: Anna Russell
Costume designer: Alicia Aulsebrook
Music: Lisa Gerrard, James Orr
Editor: Paul Rowe
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orrizonti)

78 minutes