West of Sunshine is the directorial debut of Jason Ratopolous. It’s an exploration of the modern Australian working class man, Jim, here portrayed by one of the finest actors working in Australia at the moment, Damian Hill. He’s joined by his step-son, Ty Perham, who plays his son, Alex.
The plot is simple: Jim’s in over his head. He’s already late for work. He’s drowning in debt. He’s forgotten it’s school holidays and that it’s his day to look after his son. But Jim’s an Aussie bloke. He’s not going to let the stress get to him, he’s going to soldier on and tackle each problem as they arise, and in the end, everything will be ok.
Just like Strange Colours, the apparent simplicity of West of Sunshine is deceptive. We know little about the debt that Jim’s racked up, other than the fact that it’s been unpaid for a while. We know little about the relationship with his son, other than that he’s been a less than attentive father. Yet, there’s a deep exploration of masculinity and what it means to be a working class father who doesn’t even have a brass razoo.
Where Australia once held the working class man on a VB can-made pedestal, the increasing pressure of capitalism has forced wage growth to remain below long-term averages, forcing more pressure on the trade and service industries, in turn, making the idea of becoming a ‘working class man’ less desirable. Long gone is the lionisation of the Aussie bloke who works a long day, lifting, shifting, doing anything, ending the day with a big cold beer for that hard earned thirst. The modern working class man still works hard, long, tiring days for pittance, yet has the same pressures as everybody else – they have hobbies, families, vices. But they’re time poor and cash poor, and the stresses pile up quick.
This is the foundation that West of Sunshine is working on. There’s no need to have Jim’s world spelled out when it’s clear through his actions what kind of life he’s living. It’s obvious how stressed and exhausted Jim is from the get go. He wakes up ten hours late for a day he’ll never catch up to. He lives a life where he’s always behind, always on the back foot. Yet, he has no choice but to keep pushing forward.
This learned disadvantage ends up tricking Jim into seeing false advantages. After a lucky gamble on a ‘sure thing’ horse, Jim ends up in the black. He’s home safe and has the ability to clear his debts with some left over for his family. But, in a moment that’ll cause extreme anxiety in anybody who is averse to gambling, Jim loses it all after seeing another eternally out of reach pot at the end of the non-existent rainbow. (I won’t lie, the act of gambling in films often causes me extreme anxiety, so thanks to having the ability to watch West of Sunshine at home, I was able to pause the film, take a walk, then come back for the inevitable pain that will befall Jim.)
The grip of gambling isn’t the only thing that wracks Jim’s subconscious. The spectre of his long gone father hangs over him, with the only physical memento of his life being the well kept vintage car that Jim drives around in with pride. Fathers learn from their fathers about how to raise their own kids, so for Jim, the absence of a father means that he has little to work with. He’s not an abusive dad, he simply makes the wrong move at times. Take the juvenile comment of ‘boobs’ that Jim makes to Alex as a woman walks past as they wait at a red light. It’s mildly comical, but the laugh is taken out of the situation with Alex’s reproachful glare at Jim that Jim seemingly misses.
Jim may not be the perfect Dad, which is especially evident with the eventful day that he and Alex go through, but from Alex’s perspective, at least he’s there for him. Damian Hill doesn’t paint Jim as being a deadbeat dad who berates Alex simply for being young (although there is the obligatory ‘get off the phone and look at the world’ speech), nor does he paint him as a damaged saint, instead, his dad is a guy who’s trying to keep his head above water. As the film wraps up in a purely symbolic manner, Jim is finally free of the pressure of the father he never had and is finally able to move forward in his life with just a little less weight than what he had before.
Raftopolous writes and directs with an urgency that carries Jim’s story through to a natural conclusion. Given this is a ‘day in the life’ film, we can only hope that the positive note that we’re left on is one that will ring true through the rest of Jim’s life, but of course, we’ve seen that the life of the working class man is not one without its pitfalls. It makes sense then that Raftopolous employs the use of the great composers Lisa Gerrard and James Orr (The Insider, Gladiator) to provide a Greek chorus-esque vibe to the film. The score elevates Jim above being ‘just a delivery driver’, to being someone who matters. The vibe that Gerrard and Orr’s score creates is one that’s similar to that of Cliff Martinez’s synth heavy score for the period drama TV series, The Knick. By applying a rarely associated type of score to this modern day domestic drama, the allusions of tragedy are recognised.
Yet, West of Sunshine isn’t a deep tragedy, instead, it is a film that laments the downfall of the traditional Aussie male. One can trace the path from the hard working shearers who are left down on their luck in Sunday Too Far Away, to the warehouse full of drivers, waiting to start their day in West of Sunshine, showing through the art of cinema how the Australian government has gradually worn down workers rights. This is not an explicit film, it simply presents a situation and asks the viewer to gather what has gone on. (In fact, to bring a modern comparison, there is a similar feeling that runs through Two Days, One Night that is present here: two souls doing their hardest to work through an awful situation, and seeing how they are forced to navigate the looming darkness that awaits.)
It would be remiss of me to not mention the work of cinematographer Thom Neal. Neal manages to capture Melbourne through fresh eyes. The sites of St Kilda, the Yarra, and the backstreets of suburban Victoria, are all shown in fleeting glory that evokes the eyes of the ever moving delivery man. This is Neal’s first feature film, and when paired with the searing, unflinching work in Hannah Gadbsy’s essential stand-up show Nanette (seriously, when was the last time that cinematography in a stand up special praised?), it shows the sign of a great talent to come.
Which is what West of Sunshine is – proof of talent that has arrived (Damian Hill), talent to come (Jason Raftopolous, Thom Neal, Ty Perham), and rediscovered talent that has long existed (Lisa Gerrard & James Orr). Most importantly, it’s proof of Australian talent working in harmony.
Director: Jason Raftopolous
Cast: Damian Hill, Ty Perham, Arthur Angel
Writer: Jason Raftopolous