This bold feature from Greek-Australian director Ana Kokkinos (following up on her well-regarded 1994 featurette, “Only the Brave,”) hones in on the confused world of its 19-year-old hero, Ari, brilliantly played by Alex Dimitriades. Over a 24-hour period, he confronts both his sexuality and his Greek background. Uncompromising and dynamic, pic, adapted from the book “Loaded” by Christos Tsiolkas, is bound to provoke debate and perhaps even censorship problems in some territories, but the filmmaker’s honesty and compassion should guarantee solid reviews. Not a movie for everyone, “Head On” should find a niche in urban quality venues and deserves to cross over from a strictly gay audience to attract the arthouse crowd.
Ari is obsessed with sex and has several sexual encounters during the film’s brief time span, most of them gay though he does make a halfhearted attempt to fulfill the sister of one of his best friends.
At the same time, he’s facing problems with his traditional Greek parents, who have no clue about his sexual — and drug-taking — activities. It’s clear that Ari needs and, at the same time, rejects his family, and he openly resents his father’s clumsy attempts to control his activities. An added complication is that he’s expected to look out for Alex (Andrea Mandalis), his younger sister who is secretly having an affair with a Lebanese youth.
Kokkinos places Ari’s end-of-millennium dilemma in context by bookending the pic with newsreel images of Greek migrants arriving in Australia after World War II, a time when society was less tolerant and when the newcomers were ghettoized by mainstream Australians. Ari’s father, a member of the next generation after the war, was a left-wing opponent of the military junta that ruled Greece in the late ’60s, but Ari isn’t in the least bit interested in politics. He’s just out for a good time.
Early in the film Ari’s disdain for traditional family values is indicated when he leaves a wedding and heads for a gay bar. During the course of the next few hours, he has sex with a couple of strangers. Early on, he’s attracted to an Anglo youth, Sean (Julian Garner), who he meets at the home of his brother and sister-in-law, and much of his day is spent killing time until he can catch up with Sean at a bar later that night.
Ari’s circle of friends includes Johnny (Paul Capsis), a self-destructive cross-dresser, and Joe (Damien Fotiou), who, to Ari’s dismay, has decided to marry his girlfriend Dina (Dora Kaskanis).
Ari’s attempt to have sex with Joe’s mixed-up sister Betty (Elena Mandalis) is one of the film’s most moving sequences. Powerful, too, is a sequence in which, late at night, Ari and Johnny are arrested when the taxi in which they’re riding across town (driven, ironically, by a Turkish-Australian) runs a red light. Johnny, dressed as a woman, is brutally beaten by a cop of Greek origin, while Ari is forced to stand helplessly by.
Kokkinos propels the film at a brisk pace as the bored, restless protagonist moves from one encounter to another, until his inevitable liaison with Sean. The sexual scenes are vividly yet tactfully handled, with the gay activity occurring outside the camera frame. The only full frontal nudity occurs in an early scene in which Ari is seen immediately after he’s masturbated.
Dimitriades made an impact as a libidinous youth who has an affair with his (female) schoolteacher in “The Heartbreak Kid” (1993) and has subsequently carved a career for himself in Aussie soaps “Heartbreak High” and “Neighbors.” Those roles don’t begin to compare with his fine, brave work here. Onscreen in virtually every scene, the young thesp utterly convinces as a reckless, hedonistic seeker of instant gratification.
What gives “Head On” its remarkable strength, however, is that its protagonist’s wild journey is set firmly against his ethnically specific family background, one that Kokkinos evidently knows well. Notable is a brief, poignant scene in which, prior to departing for a long night on the town, Ari dances with his mother and sister in the family home, a sweet reminder of how families like this used to behave.
Supporting players are uniformly good, with Capsis a standout as the volatile cross-dresser. Jaems Grant’s fine location photography makes a major contribution to the film’s success, as does Ollie Olsen’s dynamic music score and the well-chosen Greek songs that augment many sequences.
In Australia, pic may create controversy not only for the sex scenes, but for the depiction of long-standing hatreds among members of different ethnic groups. As one character remarks, “That’s what’s wrong with this country — everyone hates everyone.” In tackling such explosive themes, Kokkinos and producer Jane Scott (“Shine”) have boldly thrown down a gauntlet against the forces of political correctness.