West of Sunshine is an independent drama from Australia about deadbeat dads and children who aren’t getting the right sort of attention from their parents. The sort of thing that sadly goes on in real life every day. Unfortunately for the central father and son duo they’re also in the middle of an increasingly dire situation that involves loan sharks and drug deals. Which sadly can also be a real situation. But this soon creates two disparate story threads. Does the whimsical family drama and the gritty gambling debt storyline come together to form a cohesive narrative? It’s more successful than you might think. But there are times in which the style of these two disparate genres begin to clash with one another.
Jimmy (Damian Hill) is a slob who lives alone in a filthy apartment full of dirty clothes. His son Alex (Ty Perham) lives with his mother from who he’s estranged. There are hints that at some time in the past Jim worked as a skilled mechanic and had a more exciting life, but now he’s stuck in a dead-end job as a parcel courier. It’s safe to say that this is all a result of his own poor life choices and as the film goes on he makes many more bad decisions. In his best moments he’s stubborn and irritating, and at his worst he’s self-destructive and self-centred. Which Alex seems to be well aware of when Jim shows up to look after him during a school holiday. The awkward atmosphere is often tangible.
Without actually knowing any specifics Alex is pretty unhappy with being stuck with his father all day. Maybe it’s because it’s a work day with nothing to do but following him to parcel drops. But he just has a feeling about what’s going on beyond all the broken promises, betting shops and bad language. As it turns out his instincts are very accurate since dear old Dad only seems to care about the classic car that most of the story centres around. Beyond gambling Jimmy’s only real interest is making sure there are no scratches on the paintwork, something he goes to questionable lengths to achieve. But today he also on other things on his mind as he has less than twelve hours to pay back a loan to a surly garage owner and his thugs.
This is all fairly typical stuff for a crime thriller with things going from bad to worse as the hours pass. There are several occasions where Jimmy could clearly get out of this situation and he instead chooses to make things more difficult. Of course the story would be over after thirty minutes if he just used his latest horse racing winnings more wisely. But since he’s an idiot who can’t think that far ahead things aren’t so straightforward. He’d rather jeopardise his relationships, both with his son, his best friend, and his boss, than make things easy on himself. In a way he’s very unlikely and perhaps needs to be beaten down in front of his son before he will see reason.
However these typical story beats are the least interesting elements and are often not the focus. This isn’t Winding Refn’s Pusher. There are no death threats or underworld clans to contend with. Instead it’s just a story about someone holding on to things from their past they don’t realise are trivial in the present. A lot of the running time is spent on this simply being one day in the life for a parent and child. There are some effective montage moments involving people doing honest work as Alex sits around waiting for Jim to make deliveries. But since there’s no real fear to his life and Jimmy often causes his own problems there’s not a huge amount of suspense. He owes money to an irate business owner and not a sinister kingpin after all.
The actual source of the drama being Jim’s own mindset might feel contrived at times, but the central relationship is at least a good anchor for the story. There’s a certain sense of mundane squalor in many of the locations, even if the cinematography is trying really hard to make it all feel light and breezy. The main characters are also pretty compelling thanks to some realistic chemistry and strong performances. I’m not entirely convinced that the events Alex goes through would really endear his father to him, but he often seems to understand more than he says. Less is often more after all, and the brisk running time helps this from ever being too heavy handed.
In the end it’s unclear if Jimmy has really turned a corner or if he’ll one day vanish like his own Dad, who’s absence as part of the car itself is often felt. Maybe some of these elements are better left being vague, but perhaps some of the things that go unsaid should have been included. Maybe being an idiot runs in the family and this is all more tragic than it first appears, especially for Alex. It’s also unclear why so much of the music sounds like the vocal tracks from Gladiator. However, despite these odd and sometimes distracting caveats this is a scrappy drama with plenty of charm. It sometimes dances on the line between grim and cute a little too closely, but it avoids being completely clichéd as a result.