SBS doesn’t make many local dramas a year, so thank goodness what we get is quality stuff. Sure, it is usually worthy, and too often bleak in tone, but at least it is time well invested.
The latest, Sunshine, centres around the South Sudanese community in Melbourne (Charter, tick), through the eyes of talented young basketballer Jacob (Wally Elnour). He has his heart set on a career in the US, having sent a video of his skills to college recruiters. After a long wait he gets the good news, they will come to see him play in the Victorian State Championships -but Jacob’s team the Sunshine Kings, is struggling under its reverend coach Neil Skelton (Kim Gyngell).
Jacob tries to coax gruff, ageing sports retailer & former player Eddie (Anthony LaPaglia) to coach his team, but Eddie, who views the Sudanese -and most of the world- with a high degree of contempt, is reluctant to assist.
Worse is to come for Jacob when his friend Santino (Autiak Aweteek) steals a porsche from a wealthy suburb and lures his friends into a joyride. When the police (Paul Ireland, Leah Vandenberg) come calling, Santino is suspicious of authority. “So what, I borrowed some rich guy’s car? Nobody got hurt,” he suggests.
But lawyer Zara (Melanie Lynskey) has a tough time making Santino see sense when he discovers a 15 year old girl was assaulted and he is the prime suspect. Suddenly Jacob is at risk of being an accomplice and his dreams of a US career may be derailed by one night of reckless fun.
Writer Matt Cameron explores the South Sudanese culture embedded deep in a working class Melbourne suburb to considerable effect.
The 4 part series straddles a crime procedural with a hero’s journey, in a community rarely visited by Australian drama. While Jacob’s mum talks to him in her native language, he answers her in English, with an Aussie accent. He works as a car park attendant, plays sport and throws selfies onto Instagram. Underpinning his character is a strong work ethic and sense of family.
In the lead role of Jacob, newcomer Wally Elnour is excellent. Showing a flair for both basketball and a subtle screen performance, he creates a sympathetic character to complement an abrasive, greying Anthony LaPaglia. In this time of wanting more diversity in the industry, the young South Sudanese performers, most of whom make their screen debut, may well be the show’s biggest contribution. Vince Colosimo, Nick Perry and Trudy Hellier all have supporting roles.
Director Daina Reid steers the premiere episode from becoming too earnest (I don’t think the word ‘refugee’ even surfaced) and, save for LaPaglia’s principal, avoids star casting. This helps bring some authenticity to the piece, together with touches guided by cultural consultant Ez Eldin Deng.
Having successfully captured convincing performances perhaps the remaining challenge is a narrative one: might it be far too predictable to clear our South Sudanese heroes of a crime, and pin it on a caucasian Australian? Time will tell.
Of course the other big challenge is to hope enough viewers tune in. With Deep Water, The Principal and Better Man, critical SBS acclaim takes precedence over broadly-appealing melodrama. With just 1 drama a year, I know which I would prefer, but I also hope everyone involved is rewarded for shining a light so brightly.
Sunshine screens 8:30pm Wednesday & Thursday on SBS.