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Review: ‘West of Sunshine,’ a worthy last film for Damian Hill, who died recently at 42

Review: ‘West of Sunshine,’ a worthy last film for Damian Hill, who died recently at 42
Damian Hill in the movie "West of Sunshine." (Uncork'd Entertainment)

In the modest but sneakily affecting Australian father-son drama “West of Sunshine,” your sympathies for a problematic dad come and go in waves, sometimes within the span of a few seconds.

Maybe it’s the way Jimmy (Damian Hill), a delivery carrier having a bad day, quickly allows a polite admonishment toward his son Alex (Ty Perham) to devolve into a cursing outburst. But there’s also the opposite situation — when he saves a harsh exchange that spurs Alex to bolt from the car with an apology and a friendly kick back and forth with a soccer ball.

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Those are the smaller examples of parental turbulence in writer-director Jason Raftopoulos’s day-in-the-life yarn, one that tips a hat toward the Italian neo-realist classic “Bicycle Thieves.” The bigger issue is that Jimmy, saddled with carting his kid around for the day, is a gambling addict who owes money to a menacing loan shark. Having to pull together fifteen grand by the end of the day when you’re worried about bodily harm, barely holding on to your job and looking after your son is a surefire way to cement your reputation as a bad dad.

There’s nothing terribly new about how “West of Sunshine” plays out — that Jimmy drives around in a lovingly maintained classic car bestowed upon him by a father who abandoned him can only mean that trying to sell it will factor into the day’s events. But in its uncomplicatedly complicated way, the predictability is matched by a basic humanity and a belief in simple redemption. It makes Raftopoulos’s debut feature an ultimately winning little tale of on-the-edge fatherhood.

At the center of it is Hill’s breezily poignant performance — an alchemic brew of compassion and flinty insecurity bleeding out of a tattooed, shaggy-haired outer layer. Late picking up Alex from his estranged and exasperated wife (Faye Smythe), as well as to a job that frowns upon having his son in tow, Jimmy is clearly a mess, especially with the cloud of repayment (and the consequences of it not happening) hovering over his head. But the character’s fumbling, sweet-faced charm is a plus — it’s easy to accept not just that Jimmy’s beautiful artist friend Jenny (Eliza D’Souza) could make a pass at him, but that he’d rebuff her because he still loves his wife.

And yet, because Jimmy’s a desperate hustler, it’s also a cinch to believe he’d wreck any good will toward him by trying to fob Alex off on her for the day, which turns both son and friend against him. Hill makes this all instability compelling. (Learning after seeing “West of Sunshine” that Hill, mostly known in Australia, died only a few months ago at the age of 42 seems doubly tragic — I’d already made a mental note to look out for him in other Down Under imports.)

It’s to the credit of “West of Sunshine,” since its filmmaking mostly hews to an avoidance strategy of being neither flashy nor amateurish, that it refuses to make Jimmy a lovable screw-up as the day’s realities sink in for him. In “Sunshine,” unlike a lot of movies built around charismatic losers, Jimmy’s dumb moves aggravatingly negate the good ones, and Raftopoulos prefers to nudge his inexpert protagonist toward the choices that will save him. It keeps the story’s expectedness from ever becoming a negative.

Everything feels centered on an invisible thread between an earnest, good-hearted incompetent and an everyday kid who just wants to feel something, anything, positive about his father. As Jimmy’s pressures mount, one keeps waiting for “West of Sunshine” to shift into crime drama mode. When it never does, you start thinking about how many Jimmys there are in the world, instead of how many movies share this one’s genetic makeup. That kind of dedication to a beating heart rather than obvious suspense is, in its own way, this movie’s unpretentious badge of honor.

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‘West of Sunshine’

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, Arena Cinelounge Hollywood; also on VOD

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