Cinephilia

Review: Sometimes Always Never

On the shortlist of actors who I’ll watch in pretty much anything, Bill Nighy is near the top. Effortlessly charming and dryly funny, he consistently brings a warmth and wit to whomever he’s portraying on screen. In Sometimes Always Never, Carl Hunter’s debut feature film about a father grieving over (and still searching for) his missing son Michael, Nighy is Alan, a tailor with a colorful suit shop and a penchant for words. A big fan of playing Scrabble, he and his family—grown son Peter (Sam Riley), his wife Sue (Alice Lowe) and their son Jack (Louis Healy)—have been playing for years, optimizing letters and points on the game board to outsmart and outplay each other night after night.

The game is a distraction, in a lot of ways, from the grief Alan lives with over his missing son who never returned after storming out of a particularly heated family Scrabble night. If the premise sounds a bit silly, that’s understandable; Hunter and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce (Goodby Christopher Robin, Millions) lean into that quirkiness with verve, structuring the film around act breaks called out by vocabulary words and and other fanciful moments. Bolstered by vibrant, primary-colored production design by Tim Dickel, the film—like one of Alan’s tailored suits—seems custom made for Nighy’s amiable savant.

But what makes this fairly slight family-centric drama one to seek out is the real storyline about a family missing a piece of its own, always incomplete without the son and brother that meant so much to them. Like a Scrabble board missing a letter, the family is always a bit off without Michael, and his disappearance has kept Alan and Peter from ever truly bonding. While Alan tries to find ways into Peter’s life, staying with the family for days on end or including him in a trip to see if an unidentified body might be Michael’s, Peter grates against his father’s efforts to stiff-upper-lip the whole thing, carrying on as if nothing’s happened. The family keeps playing Scrabble throughout, and Alan even manages to bond with a player on an online game, one that reminds him of young Michael and his skill for the game.

Of course, Alan hasn’t forgotten about the night his son disappeared or the boy missing from their family. He feels it more acutely than anyone, chasing every lead and going to great lengths in his search for Peter’s brother. Every witticism and one-liner is weighted with the sadness of a parent missing a part of himself, making this otherwise odd little film something quite poignant. Watching Alan bond with his grandson, Jack, who is harboring a sweet crush on a schoolmate, is particularly heartwarming; the film takes its name from Alan’s advice to Jack about how to wear a suit, specifically which buttons on a suit coat are buttoned sometimes, always and never. Clearly, Alan missed out on quite a lot after Michael disappeared, and the bond he can’t mend with Peter he manages to forge with Jack.

Soon, Alan’s search for Michael has ramped up and he’s convinced that the online player must be his missing son—so much so that he makes arrangements to meet the mystery player and find out for himself. The resolution of this moment and the film overall, coming as they do after a journey that endears Alan and his extended family to us, might be predictable. It’s nevertheless delightfully thoughtful, a sweet way to wrap up a film that delights in its own charisma even as it explores heavier themes of grief and loss.

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