There have been so many recent movies about modern gay teenage life that one would think a filmmaker would be hard-pressed to find a new wrinkle on what has become an increasingly familiar tale. But Head On isn't a pro forma drama of self-discovery and self-acceptance. As directed by Ana Kokkinos and realized by an extraordinary young actor named Alex Dimitriades, the movie demonstrates just how hard coming out can be, especially for those more at war with themselves than with the culture around them.
Adapted by Kokkinos and cowriter Andrew Bovell from Christos Tsiolkas' novel Loaded, this dark, moody, yet curiously invigorating drama is set in the Greek immigrant community of Melbourne, Australia. Families who fled their homeland in the wake of the military dictatorship that overtook Greece in the 1970s have been forced to make social and personal adjustments that have by no means been smooth. While the older generation has cleaved to the old ways, creating a Little Greece in the new country, their children have begun to spread out to embrace the new. And few have spread out more than the film's hero, Ari (Dimitriades).
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Smart, bright, and full of energy, Ari seems at first not all that different from any number of young men on the verge of an adulthood for which he's not quite ready. Squabbling with his overbearing father (Tony Nikolakopoulos) and uneasy around his melancholy mother (Eugenia Fragos), Ari chafes at the realization that he's shortly expected to take his place as the head of the family -- symbolized by his parents' insistence that it's his responsibility to keep a watchful eye over his sexually precocious kid sister (Andrea Mandalis).
But Ari's problems go far beyond those of a more ordinary youth in his position. He's gay and only partly "out" about it to himself. His friend Johnny (Paul Capsis) couldn't be more out. Taken to drag and calling himself Tula, Johnny is an occasional sidekick on Ari's trips into Melbourne's darker realms in search of sex and drugs, which in one amazing scene finds the pair taunted and beaten by the police. Still, this indignity takes something of a back seat to Ari's upset over his friend Peter (Alex Papps), with whom he's had a past affair. Peter is getting married, and Ari can barely withhold his scorn -- even while flirting with the clueless bride-to-be (Dora Kaskanis).
Obviously Ari needs to get himself a boyfriend. But he'll never find one in Melbourne's back alleys, where he has rough, anonymous sex with a series of older men in a completely reckless and indiscriminate fashion. Equally indiscriminate is his growing use of intravenous drugs. In fact sex has become something of a drug to Ari; the power he wields over his partners is clearly a turn-on. But love isn't a drug, it's a responsibility -- a truth that Ari comes to learn when a decidedly unpredatory young man named Sean (Julian Garner) begins to court him. So they have sex. But to Ari, having sex isn't making love, it's taking power -- brutally and heedlessly. And as a result, Sean utterly rejects him.
Rarely has a film attempted to explore the fact that, while sex is easy, genuine love and tenderness between men can be alarmingly difficult. The fact that a woman is behind the camera makes this movie all the more remarkable. But it's the man in front of the camera who makes the film work. Dimitriades gives a performance the freshness and power of which can best be likened to Robert De Niro in Mean Streets. Dimitriades is incredibly beautiful, a world-class leading man. Someone in Hollywood will surely take notice of him. I wouldn't, however, expect that someone in Hollywood would so much as try to make a film half as good as Head On.