Within the first five minutes of Carl Hunter’s feature debut Sometimes Always Never you realize that if you expected a straightforward drama about the lingering effects of a family tragedy, you were quite mistaken.
Family tragedy is indeed at the heart of the story. Alan (Bill Nighy) has spent two decades searching for his son Michael, who walked out of the house, irate after an argument with his brother Peter over a game of Scrabble, and never returned. Adult Peter (Sam Riley) leaves his own family behind to travel to a morgue with his father, to potentially identify the body of the missing Michael. It sounds like a bleak beginning to a heart wrenching story, and in many ways it is. Nothing could be more tragic than a parent having to identify the body of a child. But Sometimes Always Never walks a unique tightrope between scenes that show the unspoken pain and rage these characters carry, and moments of unexpected humour.
Alan and Peter stay at a small B&B overnight, and there they meet a couple who are also travelling to identify the body, which may be that of their missing son. This is revealed after Alan has conned them both into a game of Scrabble, cajoling Arthur (Tim McInnerny) into putting serious money on the game, only to reveal halfway through, that he is a master of the game.
In fact, Scrabble seems to be all there is for Alan. The game that brought about the disappearance of his prodigal son has become an unceasing obsession to him and he plays it constantly on his phone. It is the game he uses to try and connect with his grandson Jack, and Peter, whose resentment towards his father threatens to boil over whenever Scrabble tiles and a dictionary are nearby.
It is difficult to aptly describe how director Carl Hunter presents such complex material. The incorporation of unexpected still photography and word definitions that function almost as chapter titles feel like a bold choice. They help to create a sense of effervescence and fantasy that feel largely reminiscent of the films of Wes Anderson. But Hunter seems to know when he runs in danger of losing the plot by distracting the audience with flashy images, and halfway through, the movie settles into itself and focuses on the characters. Nevertheless, it never loses its sense of style. Every single shot of the film feels intentional: immense views of the grey English sky, the lush expanse of forest, the mundane phantasmagoria of a teenage bedroom. There is an attention to detail in Richard Stoddard's cinematography that makes every scene uniquely powerful.
Sometimes Always Never isn’t necessarily the kind of movie that will appeal to everyone, between the stylistic choices and the sometimes more stage-appropriate dialogue. What cannot be disputed, however, is the all-encompassing appeal of its star, Bill Nighy. As an audience we’re so used to seeing the man play a broad version of himself, someone who feels larger than life. As Alan, Nighy is small and reserved, and by the end you’ve almost forgotten that he’s ever been anyone else. He does a wonderful job of playing a flawed, broken man who cannot admit his mistakes until it might be too late, and he helps to make Sometimes Always Never a thoroughly unique experience.