Greek filmmaker Penny Panayotopoulou’s debut feature "Hard Goodbyes: My Father" is the worst kind of foreign film. To most moviegoers, the words "foreign film" indicate either a subtitled snooze-fest or a movie that’s got to be good simply because it hasn’t come out of the Hollywood studio system. But foreign films are as hit-and-miss as films from the United States, and when they miss – like with "Hard Goodbyes: My Father" – they’re harder to sit through than any billion-dollar blockbuster.
"Hard Goodbyes" concerns a young Greek boy named Elias (Giorgos Karayannis) who has an especially close relationship with his roustabout father, Christos. While Elias and Christos dream of opening up an appliance store, Elias’ mother and older brother know better. Christos leaves home for long periods of time and whatever his work is, it’s far from legitimate.
After promising his son he’ll watch the first Apollo moon landing with him when he returns from his trip, Christos is killed when his car is hit head-on by a car driving the wrong way on a road. Elias is so devastated by his father’s death that he goes into denial, making up elaborate fantasies about his father’s "real" whereabouts and building a shrine of his things. When no one wants to tell Christos’ senile mother that her son has died, Elias writes her fictitious postcards in which he pretends to be Christos. All this leads up to the moon landing and Elias coming to terms with his father’s death.
The problem with "Hard Goodbyes" is that it relies on tired clich퀌�s to gain our sympathy. The tortured relationship between Elias’ mother and father is signified through long, tired glances and swooning violins. At one point, Elias’ mother walks in to find Christos sitting on Elias’ bed; they exchange fiery looks and proceed to make love on their son’s bed (gross, I know). Where their passion for each other comes from or why Christos has to leave all the time is a complete mystery.
The scenes with Christos and Elias are no better. Writer/director Penny Panayotopoulou tries so hard to make us feel like we’re seeing a wonderful father-son bond that it’s obvious no such bond could exist in real life. Christos and Elias are a screenwriter’s invention, and it shows. When dealing with parent-child relationships, screenwriters need to have the courage to believe that viewers will sympathize with characters that are as messy and as ugly as real people. I’m reminded of the pot-smoking, cancer stricken mother Joy Burns in "Pieces of April" and the well-meaning but misguided patriarch Royal Tenenbaum in "The Royal Tenenbaums" as two great examples of realistic movie parents. Those characters parent fast and loose and bond with their children only during happy accidents. But their ineptness stinks of the real, while "Hard Goodbyes: My Father" just stinks.