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Head On

Review by Elias Savada
Posted 5 May 2000

Directed by Ana Kokkinos.

Starring Alex Dimitriades, 
Paul Capsis, Julian Garner, 
Elena Mandalis, Tony Nikolakopoulos, 
Damien Fotiou and Eugenia Fragos.

Written by Andrew Bo vell, Ana Kokkinos, 
Mira Robertson
based on the book Loaded by
Christos Tsiolkas

Headstrong immigrant fathers, semi-understanding mothers, insubordinate children are the norm in the brilliantly comic East Is East (Pakistanis in England) and the provocative, darker Head On (Greeks in Australia). Both pictures have their dysfunctional family underpinnings, but the latter is a contemporary, sexual vision, spiraling deep into the portrait of a young man in search of his own identity and caught in a trap of cultural angst. Belatedly arriving in Washington, DC, after opening in New York City in August 1999 (and a year earlier down under, where it won several Australian Film Institute awards), the local daily newspapers gave the film short shrift upon opening this weekend (the press screening print arrived late), but the gay community may hear the buzz and wander in for a brief look-see before the picture moves on to its next booking. 

Nihilistic, virile nineteen year old Ari (Australian TV staple Alex Dimitriades) is dazed, confused, unemployed, and struggling to understand his hetero/homo-sexual inclinations. Heís the first to admit heís no scholar, worker, or poet. His hard working, old-style idealist father, a short-tempered man proud of his Greek origins, figures Ari to be a lost cause and easy target. Polar opposites, dad takes to shouting at him in Greek, while the angry young man returns taunts in English. Momís the bilingual U.N. referee in a battle being lost on all sides. This is not 1950's sitcom land.

Indulging in booze, pot, and cocaine, and harder drugs to escape parental pressures, he recalls an easier life a decade earlier when his then radically active family marched for freedom. Now emboldened as his body succumbs to its latest injection or sniff, he strolls back alleys, sandwiching unfulfilling, anonymous quick tricks with a Chinese restaurant worker or a bearded barfly while tight-roping potential relationships with Sean (Julian Garner), a full blooded native who shares Ariís affinity for the Rolling Stones, best friend Johnny (Paul Capsis), a freakish drag queen who lives with his drunken, jobless father, and Betty (Elena Mandalis), a fellow snorter and confidante.

Head On is the feature debut of Ana Kokkinos, the Greek-Australian director and co-writer with Mira Robertson of the 1994 award-winning lesbian-themed extended short Only the Brave. Based on her latest undertaking (my only exposure to her work), Kokkinos appears to be a strong actorís director, soliciting powerful performances from her castóa handful of lost souls surrounding the complex, paradoxical lead. There is a gritty edge (thanks to director of photography Jaems Grantís hand-held closeups and effectively keyed lighting) to this graphic cinematic day-in-the-life story, with dabblings of frontal nudity and sadism. It may have a meandering tone, perhaps not all that focused, but the filmís force lies in its portrayal of lifeís hellish undertow that grabs at its social castoffs and whorish dregs.

Dimitriades makes a stunning show of it all. Thereís one sequence at the family home, after dad as put on a Greek record and starts to dance the traditional tsiftiteli with daughter Alex (Andrea Mandalis). Ari watches, a complacent gaze ironed on his face, as his dad approaches and invites him into the circle. Ari, snapping his fingers, mechanically pleases his father, but thereís no joy here, just a brief respite. Moments later, any reconciliation that might have softened the distance between father and son is violently erased. They are strangers sharing the same roof.

Head On crashes rights into your gay expectations and drags them down into the gutter. Powerful forces are at work here. You wonít go home laughing. No way

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