A moving take on violence, aspiration and passion in the suburbs of West Melbourne

By Heath Chamerski
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Photo by Daniel absi from Pexels

Sunshine

Directed by Daina Reid

A stolen car; a wild night out for a group of mates; a teen girl with horrendous injuries fighting for her life in a hospital bed; and an aspiring basketballer who knows more than he’s letting on about exactly what happened that night.

That’s the gripping hook of the SBS drama series Sunshine, a show that presents a realistic and multi-faceted depiction of the Sudanese community of the western suburbs of Melbourne. This is particularly timely coming in the wake of much hysterical and false reporting of Sudanese people in recent years.

The series was written by Matt Cameron, Ian Collie, Lisa Cox, Elise McCredie and Rachael Turk, who spent time with the Sudanese population of West Melbourne, in order to create their suburban story. The series revolves around South-Sudanese basketball star Jacob Garang (Wally Elnour), who is hoping to hit the big time via a US college scholarship and, ultimately, get drafted by an NBA team. But after a fateful night out in a stolen car with his criminally-inclined friend Santino (Autiak Aweteek), ends with a teenage girl, Elly (Tiarnie Coupland), lying in hospital after being found brutally beaten and left for dead. Santino and Jacob’s involvement in the young woman’s dire predicament is something the series slowly trickles out over the course of all four episodes.

All evidence leads to Santino, and he is quickly arrested, but the sordid events of that night soon envelop Jacob as well and eventually much of the local Sudanese community, with the police investigation rapidly impacting Jacob’s hoop dreams.

The crime aspects of this series are very matter-of-fact and well dramatised, but that’s only part of what Sunshine has to offer. It’s also a sports drama that recycles the old hat, but usually welcome cliché of a disgraced coach getting a chance at redemption by leading a ragtag team to glory. Played by the always-terrific Anthony LaPaglia, Eddie Grattan a one-time basketball star, avoids cliché thanks to his genuinely moving performance. From initially assuming that Jacob is nothing more than a common thief, he eventually agrees to take on the role as coach of Jacob’s team, the Sunshine Kings.

There’s also some great work from New Zealand actor Melanie Lynskey, of Heavenly Creatures fame, who plays a kindly lawyer who has worked closely with the Sudanese community and comes to the aid of Santino and Jacob, while conducting her own investigation into what really happened.

The mini-series is crammed with overlapping plot lines and character development, with the plot never quite going in the direction you think it will. Never drifting into melodrama or sensationalism, and with naturalistic performances from the entire cast, Sunshine‘s melding of sports drama and police procedural feels quite fresh; its unique setting and insights into a community that isn’t often shown in popular TV is a welcome change from the norm.

Sunshine honestly depicts the temptation of crime within the community and how good people can sometimes get mixed up in bad circles. The series takes time to explore the tensions that arise between Sudanese immigrants, with tribal conflicts and prejudices still playing out in suburban Melbourne.

Playing Jacob, first-time actor Elnour is the charismatic centre of the story, instantly getting viewers onside. Elnour’s likeable performance makes the audience refuse to believe he could ever be capable of such a brutal crime, while director Daina Reid’s nuanced direction slowly gives the audience an understanding of what happened on that pivotal night, as clues and flashbacks reveal themselves at key moments in the story.

Sunshine might only be four episodes long, but there’s more plot and character development going on here than in many series at twice that length. With powerhouse performances and a surprising amount of warmth and heart, despite the often grisly subject matter, Sunshine burns bright in the realm of recent local dramas.

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