Showing in the Horizons sidebar at Venice, Jason Raftopoulos’ debut film West of Sunshine is a day in the life of Jim (Damien Hill), an inveterate gambler who somehow has to come up with the money to see off his bookie while at the same time looking after his son.
Gamblers, like alcoholics, are a source of some fascination for cinema. There’s something about that insatiable devotion to chance and risk which carries with it a superficial glamour, an addiction to losing which makes for a potentially tragic arc. Jim is a floppy-haired schlub who works as a courier. He’s separated from his wife and is behind on the child support. He also owes $15k to local loan shark Banos (Tony Nikolakopoulos) and has until the end of the day to pay it. Adding to his woes, it’s his turn to look after his son Alex (Ty Perham), and has to drag him around work all day. Fortunately, Jim has a plan.
The problem with films about addiction is that they’re often predictable. Even the dialogue runs through familiar runnels of self-delusion. Whether you’re willing to ride on this well-worn track will depend on the ability of the main actor to overcome the constrictions of his/her character’s pathology. Think of James Caan in The Gambler as a good example, as opposed to Mark Wahlberg in The Gambler (a terrible one). Hill does his best but Jim is woefully underwritten, a shuffling loser who various other characters try to bolster with the dignity of a back story that doesn’t seem to fit his actual behaviour. An artist and would-be girlfriend talks about how interesting he is, but we see little evidence of that. There’s also a subplot about his relationship with his own father, centred on the vintage car he drives, but it’s so sketchily told that the emotional investment has no heft. Also, it doesn’t help the audience to sympathise with Jim’s money problems when we have to watch him driving around for the whole film in the very solution.
The heart of the film is supposed to be Jim’s relationship with Alex. There’s supposed to be a Ferris Bueller’s Day Off learning to the day, but though the schematic ideas are there, West of Sunshine doesn’t follow through. They argue a bit; Alex is an annoying brat at times; Jim teaches him blackjack and so on and so forth. It doesn’t help that James Orr and Lisa Gerrard’s shoegazing score washes over the film to the point that the whole thing becomes soggy with gasping emotion it hasn’t earned. At a carwash Alex sprays his dad with water in slow motion as Jim stands, arms outstretched in a Jesus-style pastiche of The Shawshank Redemption, but there isn’t really enough darkness here to requires redemption. Jim is simply a bit feckless: everyone around him only a slightly bit peeved.