Hard Goodbyes: My Father Review
By Mark Athitakis
Penny Panayatopoulou's Hard Goodbyes: My Father is a risky film. Not because it's particularly inventive in its script or its camerawork, but because it treads on some wearyingly well-beaten ground. From The 400 Blows to the recent Valentín to Punky Brewster re-runs, we're pretty much stuffed full of examples, good and bad, of coming-of-age stories featuring young children making sense of Those Strange Adults. But Goodbyes works. Though it doesn't do much to break free of the coming-of-age genre's conventions, it skillfully avoids most of its pitfalls, and adds an appealingly metaphysical tone to its story.
Set in Athens, Greece in 1969, the young child in question here is 10-year-old Elias (Yorgos Karayannis), whose deep love for his father (Stelios Mainas) blinds him to the fact that his family is actually falling apart. Dad is a failed traveling salesman, and his constant driving away to hawk household appliances has fractured his relationship both with Elias' mother (Ioanna Tsirigouli) and his older brother Aris (Hristos Bouyotas). As much as Elias misses his father and regrets his frequent absences, he's also become used to the small trappings of his peripatetic lifestyle. There are the stories about moonshots that Dad tells him (the film's events are framed by the Apollo 11 landing), the car rides Dad takes him on, and the candy bars with bright blue wrappers that Dad leaves for him every time he returns home, which Elias keeps stashed in an old army ration chest.
Given the tenderness that suffuses the setup, it's not difficult to figure out what happens next. When Elias' father dies in a car accident less than halfway through the film, Hard Goodbyes starts to become more than a by-the-numbers growin' up film. Instead, as Elias slowly realizes what his father's absence represents, the movie becomes a remarkable exploration of how difficult the mourning process can be. Refusing at every turn to opt for the easy, the melodramatic or the cute, Panayotopoulou gives us Elias' revelations with a bittersweet and somber atmosphere. When he gathers talismans of his father's life - his suit jacket, the storybooks he read, the candy bars - and surrounds them around him in a storage room, there's nothing adorable about it. It's an elegantly-constructed series of shots that poignantly exposes Elias' need to believe in his father's return.
The supporting roles help underscore Elias' struggle and show the variety of forms that mourning takes. Elias' mother becomes sad and stricken but also strengthened; his older brother tries to affect a masculinity he hasn't quite earned yet; his grandmother (Despo Diamantidou) struggles to reconcile her sorrow with an Old World mother's perpetual disappointment in her sons. Though Hard Goodbyes deals with sorrow and has a muted tone, there's nothing sluggish or depressive about the film. Panayotopoulou seems to inherently understand that another's death can remind us of the depth of our own living, and her film is filled with some beautifully-shot and revelatory moments about how a family can stay together and endure. Ultimately, Hard Goodbyes is a softly uplifting film, and the fact that it refuses to concede to clichés of precocious kids and eccentric adults makes it all the more powerful.
Aka Diskoli apocheretismi: O babas mou.
Always wash up before dinner.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 27th December 2002
Distributed by: Sipapu Films
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 85%
Fresh: 23 Rotten: 4
Cast & Crew