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Words with family - ‘Sometimes Always Never’

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Coming across an unexpectedly good movie is a lovely treat. The blockbusters tend to take up most of the oxygen, making it a little tougher to discover smaller, more idiosyncratic films. One of the many joys of my job is that the gig makes it just that much easier to find the less obvious gems.

“Sometimes Always Never” is no one’s idea of a blockbuster. It’s an intimate, offbeat family dramedy, the feature directorial debut of Carl Hunter, who might be best known as a member of Liverpool pop band The Farm (say what you will, but “Groovy Train” remains a bop), with a script by noted British screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce. It is smart and sweet and incredibly stylish, a mélange of retro aesthetics and family dynamics.

Again, this is not a big movie. Instead, it is constructed of intimate moments, relying on vivid visual choices and heartfelt performances to tell a simple, delicate story of what it means to love and the myriad ways in which we try to move on from loss. It is a clever and quietly, quirkily moving piece of cinema.

Alan (Bill Nighy, “Emma.”) is a widower. He’s a successful tailor (the title refers to the classic phrase indicating which buttons on a suit jacket should be fastened) who lives alone; while he has a fairly solid relationship with his son Peter (Sam Riley, “Radioactive”) and his family – wife Sue (Alice Lowe, “Eternal Beauty”) and son Jack (Louis Healy, TV’s “Emmerdale”) – he’s largely consumed by a pair of obsessions. Those obsessions? Locating his long-lost other son Michael. And Scrabble.

When a trip to the country to look at a body that might be Michael proves to be another fruitless quest, Alan starts to drift. He winds up showing up on Peter’s doorstep one night. Sue invites him to stay for dinner, and then subsequently to sleep over. Alan accepts and crashes in the bedroom with the video game-fixated Jack (he’s a big “World of Warcraft” fan). And then, he simply … stays.

Alan begins spending all of his time on Jack’s computer, playing online Scrabble with people all over the world. And slowly, he becomes convinced that one of his regular competitors is Michael. Granted, his sole evidence consists of playing tendencies that Michael shared, but still – he’s sure. And so he begins trying to figure out ways to track down this mysterious player.

Along the way, Alan also makes a deeper connection to his son’s family. It’s particularly pronounced with Jack – Alan’s sartorial advice proves to be helpful in the young man’s awkward efforts to woo a girl that he likes named Rachel (Ella-Grace Gregoire, “Nocturnal”) – but all of the relationships begin to deepen. Still, his insistence that this Scrabble player is Michael causes real dissonance that could well have real consequences.

What remains to be seen is whether Alan’s obsession with tracking down one son will ultimately cost him his relationship with the other.

“Sometimes Always Never” is a sweet, soulful film about family. It’s about loving those closest to you and doing your best to help them deal with their own trials and tribulations, no matter how odd they might seem. It’s a movie about relationships; there’s not a lot of quote-unquote plot here. It doesn’t concern itself with that. The story is slim and focused, without a lot of excess air. Instead, this is a movie built on tone, both narratively and visually.

And let’s talk about the aesthetic of this film, because it really is quite striking. The retro vividity of the proceedings brings forth a very specific vibe – think Wes Anderson if he was making movies in the ‘70s. The distinct and vibrant color palette, the meticulous and idiosyncratic production design, the stylized title cards – all Andersonian, but not in a derivative way. Instead, it would seem that Hunter has arrived at a similar place via a route mapped by very different influences – a sort of twee parallel evolution. That said, it’s lovely (and occasionally stunning) to look at.

Nighy is a wonderful actor, an underrated force on the screen. He is one of those performers who seems doomed to never quite get his due, but he is unfailingly excellent. This role is no exception; he radiates a combination of charm and sadness that I cannot imagine anyone else pulling off. He serves as the film’s beating heart, the central mass around which the rest orbit.

The rest are plenty good as well. Riley does wonderful work as the put-upon and exasperated but nevertheless devoted son. Lowe plays Alice with a sweet openness, while Healy captures that uniquely teenage vibe of loving his family but not wanting to admit it. Gregoire is sweet in a small role, while Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnery are a hoot as a couple who show up a couple of times for reasons that I won’t spoil – just know that they’re both quite good.

“Sometimes Always Never” is the kind of movie that we see less of in this, the age of the blockbuster. But there will always be room for intimate, idiosyncratic stories about people and the lives that they live. This film is a wonderful example of such a story, a film that shines a quiet shine. It's a seven-letter bingo of a film.

[4 out of 5]

Last modified on Sunday, 12 July 2020 18:24

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