I suppose it’s fitting that I’m sitting here, struggling to come up with something to say about a movie about people who … struggle to know what to say. Sometimes Always Never is an idiosyncratic meditation on communication, the importance of words and the way a vast vocabulary is no substitute for having a substantive conversation. It is not, I should note, the same film as Never Rarely Sometimes Always, despite the nearly identical titles (further underscoring the difference between words and meaning, I suppose). It’s also not a true missing person mystery, despite the cheeky way it plays on all our expectations of dour British investigative dramas. The film may open with father Alan (Bill Nighy) going to a far-flung coroner’s office with his son Peter (Sam Riley, Maleficent) to see if an unidentified body might belong to his other son, a long-gone runaway named Michael, but by the time Alan settles into a local inn and starts fleecing another grieving couple in a game of Scrabble it’s pretty clear the mystery is beside the point.
The film leans hard on Scrabble as both a frequent plot device and a metaphor, and like almost every other element it manages to be both too on-the-nose and yet still disarmingly effective. There’s charm aplenty in the retro set design that mixes mid-century modern with ’80s aqua and magenta, representing the way the all of our characters are stuck in their own specific pasts. There’s a familiar appeal to the camera work, which frames fussy tableaus from a distance before finally allowing a sense of kinetic movement in the film’s final act. Tonally, the story (written by 24 Hour Party People, Millions, and Goodbye Christopher Robin scribe Frank Cottrell-Boyce) feels more like a stage play, but maybe I’m projecting. Maybe seeing it live would remove that carefully studied distance and make some of the character decisions feel earned because that’s ultimately the downfall of this movie about people learning how to communicate. It, itself, doesn’t communicate the changes in its characters. They talk, but say nothing, and things evolve for little to no reason. Alan shows up on Peter’s doorstep one day and doesn’t leave. He settles into his grandson Jack’s room, sharing a bunk bed and dominating the computer to play — yup, you guessed it — online Scrabble. There is no moment that explains why Jack goes from being suffocated by Alan’s presence to suddenly wearing suits tailored by him (Alan is a tailor, by the way, which matters only for this one moment and for the film’s title, which refers to when you should fasten each of a suit coat’s three buttons), other than perhaps the one night Alan starts telling Jack stories of his mother, who mined coal in the basement of her general goods store. No, the story isn’t a fable with a lesson. The lesson is simply that Alan talked, and Jack listened. That’s it.
Then Alan disappears as suddenly as he arrived, with zero warning, and Peter goes to track him down, despite not wanting to or being particularly worried. I want to call the missing son, Michael, the film’s McGuffin, but that’s not entirely accurate. It would imply that his disappearance set something in motion, and it’s exactly the opposite — his disappearance froze these men, and their relationship, in its tracks many years ago. Alan has always been looking for Michael, and Peter has always felt somewhat neglected as a result. What sets things in motion this time is… well, simply that Alan showed up on Peter’s doorstep and didn’t leave, I suppose.
I can appreciate a film with low (or no) stakes, and I appreciate this film for absolutely nailing one inescapable fact: that talking is an exercise. Communication takes practice, and no, it doesn’t always matter what you say at first as long as you’re saying something. As Alan notes, in Scrabble you have to remember that you’re not playing the board, you’re playing the other player. The artificial value of words in the abstract is nothing compared to the human connection they can forge. As a study in opening up, Sometimes Always Never is superb, and luckily it has an outstanding cast (including Alice Lowe, Jenny Agutter, and Tim McInnerny) to invest that lesson with enough charisma to almost make it stick. Unfortunately, they have to do the heavy lifting with nothing more than their presence, because this story resolutely does the opposite of the old adage “Show, Don’t Tell.” It talks in circles, with nothing to show for it — and the only reason it comes close to working is because there’s someone like Bill Nighy onscreen, who could literally read a phone book and keep me watching. The result is a comforting and quirky whisp of a film that manages to find a lot of fancy ways to barely say anything at all.
Sometimes Always Never is available via virtual theatrical release now, and will be on demand starting July 10, 2020.
Header Image Source: Blue Fox Entertainment