West of Sunshine has the feel of a short stretched to 90 minutes, and stuffed with endless over-scored melodramatic moments, but credit should be given to going against the grain of Australian masculine film history.
Much of the credit for West of Sunshine’s positive reviews should be given to the late Damien Hill. He takes a difficult and unlikeable role that manages to humanize a man while depicting his many shortcomings. He is a compulsive and degenerate gambler, a bad father, and can’t manage to get his personal life together, so it doesn’t seep into his job. Too bad the film as a whole isn’t as interesting as Hill’s performance.
The film’s main plot you have seen hundreds of times. Mostly having to score a certain amount of money before time runs out. Jim (The Leftovers’ Damien Hill) has till the end of his shift to pay back debt from a dangerous loan shark (yet played refreshingly sympathetically by the magnetic Tony Nikolakopoulos). The problem is he also needs to watch his son (Ty Perham),. The damn school system gave him a holiday. It is just bad luck, I guess.
I have two main problems with the Venice Film Festival darling West of Sunshine. The musical score is so over the top it saturates the picture. It is so deliberate it doesn’t allow the characters, or film for that matter, room to breathe. It is used in almost any scene where the characters’ dialogue stops. In contrast, small scenes are now paired with a soaring melody that seems sorely out of place. This takes away any emotional resonance from pivotal points in the film’s final act.
Pair that with a plot underwritten and has multiple thinly-veiled side characters with highly questionable motivations. The situation of paying off his debt is resolved, so the film’s second half feels like a lot of filler. The film is very predictable, as the solution to all his problems with the first 20 minutes. The characters’ reactions feel forced and ring false, and decisions are made out-of-character to make a point about masculinity.
West of Sunshine was written and directed by Jason Raftopoulos. This is his first time directing a full-length feature after having a well-received short-film career. He should be given credit for taking a risk by creating a sensitive, intimate Australian film. This is notably different from what mass audiences outside of the land down under expect out their ultra-masculine film history, especially when you look at the modern (Animal Kingdom, Rover, Wolf Creek, Chopper) to classic fare (Mad Max). His film is more about the damaged relationship between the father and his son than paying off a gambling debt. The story between the fractured relationship and the acceptance of his son, who may be leaving towards a life choice he did not envision, never has a chance to resonate.
West of Sunshine has the feel of a short stretched into 90 minutes. The director has stuffed the film with endless over-scored melodramatic moments that never quite land the way they were intended. That is unfortunate. Damien Hill’s central performance, his final lead performance since his untimely passing in September of last year, is worth seeing. Even if the film falls short of the mark.