Not to be confused with Eliza Hittman’s extraordinary abortion drama “Never Rarely Sometimes Always,” Carl Hunter’s bittersweet quirkfest “Sometimes Always Never” boasts three quarters of that other film’s title and a much smaller fraction of its value. Of course, this strange overlap is really only worth mentioning because Hunter’s cock-eyed comedy — the fable-esque tale of a sarky, widowed Scrabble obsessive who’s determined to find the teenage son who stormed out of the house and disappeared forever during a heated game several decades earlier — is so preoccupied with the power of words.
Alan (a puckish but tortured Bill Nighy) seemingly knows them all, and doesn’t hesitate to ruin his opponents by finding whatever high-scoring definition might be hiding in the random jumble of letters he has at his disposal. The film around Alan shares his casual velleity for recondite vocabulary, as each new act begins with a flash card for some relevant term; “itinerary” is one, “inconvenient” another. And yet, someone involved in the movie’s American distribution inexplicably decided that its original title (“Triple Word Score”) would score fewer points than abject nonsense like “Sometimes Always Never” here in the United States. That poor judgment call probably can’t be laid at Hunter’s feet, but that someone felt comfortable re-labeling his work with such generic adverbs speaks reflects the insurmountable wishy-washiness of a film about words that never manages to define itself.
As with most films that are eventually suffocated by their own eccentricities, “Sometimes Always Never” is strange enough to hold our attention for a while. Set along the peaky, windswept shores of Lancashire and Merseyside, our story introduces us to an off-kilter world that’s shaped by its hero’s emotional stagnation. We meet Alan, a tailor whose perspective is as sharp (and, uh, tailored) as any of his suits, as he rendezvous with his sign painter son Peter (a delicate Sam Riley) so they can road trip to a coroner’s office up the coast and see if an unidentified body is the long-missing Michael.
From the very first shot, it’s clear that everything in “Sometimes Always Never” has been arranged with the cheeky precision of a Scrabble tile. Trying to thread the needle between Aki Kaurismäki’s diorama-like deadpan and Wes Anderson’s precise family portraiture, Alan moves through the world like everyone he encounters is part of a frozen anthropological display in some kind of alien zoo. Cutout backgrounds, black box sets, and extras who are seemingly encased in wax all work very hard to enhance the emotional paralysis that’s gripped Alan since Michael fell off the map.
Petulant but never off-putting, Peter diagnoses the problem right off the hop: His dad has been so consumed with finding Michael (who’s probably been dead for decades) that he’s failed to forge a meaningful relationship with the one son he’s still got left. It all comes out in one of the first and best scenes of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s half-formed screenplay, as Peter tries to get through to his father during a long drive while Alan sits in the passenger seat and plays “Words with Friends” or some such on his phone like a teenager who isn’t old enough to realize he’ll never have this time back.
Peter remembers the way that games have always led to no good in their family, and that Alan made them all play a knock-off version of Scrabble that came with two “z”s (an ersatz dad raising his sons on ersatz games), but the film never bothers to explore why Alan can only communicate through that kind of competition. It does, however, make time for him to mercilessly hustle an old married couple (Jenny Agutter and Tim McInnerny) he meets over a Scrabble board at an inn that night, who’ve come to see if the corpse belongs to the son they lost some time ago. “You think it’s the not knowing that’s the hardest,” Agutter’s character says, “but tomorrow maybe we will know, and we may wish we were back to not knowing.” “Hope is a great friend,” Alan replies.
It seems to be the only friend he’s had for the last 30 years or so, and he’ll do anything to protect his share of it. The brunt of the movie finds Alan moving in with Peter, his wife (the great Alice Lowe, wasted here), and their MMORPG-addicted teenage son Jack (Louis Healy), as any narrative urgency dissolves into a viscous stew of “cute” visual gags and empty character growth. Nighy is such a naturally gifted hangdog that he can mine a good chuckle and some great pathos from a bit as simple as brushing his teeth with a child’s toothbrush (affixed with a talking robot who chants “exterminate!” as Alan scrubs his gums), but too much of the quirk is there for its own sake.
Jack, who should be the film’s emotional fulcrum, is so underwritten that his entire role is reduced to his wardrobe; his flirtation with a local girl his age feels like a “Love Actually” subplot that’s been grafted onto a movie that is desperate to distract from its own shallow core. Lowe is seldom treated more seriously than the set décor, Riley is stuck in the shadows until a big third act reveal, and Nighy’s most reliable scene partner is a label maker that he uses to assign meaning to objects (and then, later, to leave sweet messages for his grandson).
Meanwhile, the only thread holding any of this together is the one about Alan’s growing conviction that his online Scrabble nemesis is actually his missing son. Hope can haunt people in any number of ways, and there’s something to the idea that Alan’s gamesmanship has clouded his reasons for playing in the first place, but “Sometimes Always Never” clings so tightly to its quirks that its simplest and most affecting ideas are diluted along the way.
Some men struggle to communicate with their kids, and want so badly for things to be a certain way that they can’t appreciate how they are, and some movies are so committed to an aesthetic that they can’t hear their characters screaming for a chance at self-expression. If nothing else, Hunter’s film offers some of the most hi-octane Scrabble action ever captured on camera. That scores it a few points at least, if not enough to win.
Blue Fox Entertainment will release “Sometimes Always Never” in virtual cinemas on Friday, June 12. It will be available on VOD on Friday, July 10.