Children see the world differently than adults do, and it’s the stubborn and naïve filter through which a child in 1969 Athens processes his father’s death that informs both the aesthetic makeup and narrative unraveling of Penny Panayotopoulou’s Hard Goodbyes: My Father. Coming and going from destinations unknown, Elias’s father, Christos (Stelios Mainas), brings candy bars home to give to his young son, which Elias stows away over time in a tiny suitcase he keeps under his bed. His mother (Ioanna Tsirigouli) cries and has taken to smoking, and it is perhaps because of this that the boy doesn’t eat his chocolate; it’s as if he were trying to keep intact a family unit he understands—subconsciously at least—to be breaking into little pieces. When Christos dies in a car accident, Elias insists on believing his father will come back to him in time to see the impending U.S. moon landing on television. To accept this tragedy, then, becomes synonymous with growing up.
Director Penny Panayotopoulou understands the way children process thoughts, forcing her audience to come to grips with the lives of her characters in much the same way a child would come to understand or remember something in their past, like the way Christos’s job as a salesman is implied in a dreamy visual throwaway of boxes (some stamped with Hoover logos) piled on top of each other in the back seat of the man’s car. (It’s as memorable an image as the joy on Elias’s face when his father teaches him to shave.) However cloying, Elias’s ritual of denial—from telling his classmates that his father is still alive to writing letters to his family as if he were Christos himself—makes sense for a child, but while much of the film is an honest approximation of how a child may behave irrationally in the face of tragedy, Panayotopoulou isn’t quite as attentive to the grief of her adult characters.
In refusing to shoot Elias’s mother and older brother, Ari (Christos Bougiotas), through the child’s point of view, or offer an explanation for their strained relationship to Christos, Panayotopoulou inadvertently puts them on Elias’s infantile level. At least Elias’s grandmother has a reason to act the way she does (she appears to be a afflicted with some form of dementia, which sadly and evocatively parallels the young boy’s own screwy outlook of the world), but the mother and older brother’s grief demands a context that Panayotopoulou is afraid to dish out for fear of diminishing the film’s sappier returns. So, whenever the film cuts away from scenes of its child star appropriately acting like a child to its adult actors acting like, well, actors in some preschool stage production of their lives, Hard Goodbyes goes from being appropriately child-like to simply childish.