Movie Review: Sometimes Always Never
By Matthew Huntley
July 20, 2020
The appeal of “Sometimes Always Never” is the more it unfolds, the greater its pull becomes — on our hearts, on our minds, on the way it gets us to reflect and appreciate the things right in front of us. Our hope is that any film will gain traction as it proceeds — and any good one does — but what’s unique and pleasing about “Sometimes Always Never” is that its value and effect sneak up on without us ever thinking the film is being sneaky.
Because its theme and execution are both time-honored and simple, our instincts tell us “Sometimes Always Never” must either be derivative or lacking ambition. But early on, it proves its traditional qualities are actually its assets rather than its liabilities, and the filmmakers have made a conscious choice to keep their presentation direct, one that doesn’t get tangled up in unnecessary “noise” or extraneous bells and whistles. The result is a brisk, touching and upbeat story that leaves us smiling, maybe even tearful.
Perhaps you already heard of the film prior to its domestic opening. It was actually released in its native UK in 2018 and has now become widely available in the US thanks to Video on Demand. It’s good timing, too, because the film’s story and style allow it to serve as both a grounded human drama and as an escapist romantic adventure, and with all the chaos happening in the world in 2020, it’s more important than ever to stay practical and realistic but at the same time take a break from all the “stuff” we feel we have to do and stay up-to-date on. We have to remember to simply breathe because, believe it or not, breathing is “stuff” too.
This is the philosophy of Alan (an impressively understated Bill Nighy), a tailor whose gift for calmness, focus and precision have made him a repository of history, trivia and obscure knowledge. It shows in his lexicon and uncanny ability to play Scrabble, a game that seems to have played an integral role in his life as a single father to sons Peter and Michael, although Peter (Sam Riley) says their version of Scrabble wasn’t the real deal. “It was called Scribble or Scrobble…a cheap rip-off. The letters came on a cardboard sheet.”
Alan and Peter have this conversation after meeting at a desolate beach and driving to a remote town in hopes of finding Michael, whom Peter deems “the prodigal son.” It’s clear that Peter, now in his late 30s with a son of his own, doesn’t have the best relationship with his father. Despite being a successful painter and having a loving, understanding wife named Sue (Alice Lowe), Peter carries a lot of resentment and sadness, which we learn stems from his upbringing with the undemonstrative Alan and feeling like he played second fiddle to Michael.
I’ll not reveal the context in which Alan and Peter find themselves seeking Michael because it’s to the credit of Frank Cottrell Boyce’s screenplay and director Carl Hunter’s assumption the audience is smart enough to pick up on such details. Boyce and Hunter don’t feel the need to be explicit about their characters’ situations; they’d rather we watch, listen, and gather information for ourselves.
Alan and Peter’s mini road trip eventually finds them having to stay overnight at a dark and somewhat seedy bed and breakfast. Here they meet a retired couple, Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim McInnerny), whom Alan befriends and is quick to ask if they’d fancy a game of Scrabble, which just happens to be in the lobby. As it turns out, Margaret and Arthur are on a trip not unlike Alan and Peter’s, and their martial relationship is likewise just as rocky.
At this point, “Sometimes Always Never” starts to reveal itself as a film that will work to refresh itself and not merely settle down onto a well-worn path. One direction we think it might take is that of a traditional road picture in which an estranged father and son learn to communicate and eventually bond, and that Scrabble, of all things, along with this new couple they’ve just met, will serve as the glue that binds them together. But the beauty of this film is the way it gets us to not think about where it’s going so much as how it goes there — wherever that may be. It’s captivating just doing what it does.
Not that its final destination is completely outside our purview, but even so, we’d never accuse it of being predictable. In fact, we’re hard-pressed to categorize “Sometimes Always Never,” which is another one of its charms. It straddles the lines between dramatic, humorous, quirky, romantic and zany, giving it a healthy variety of traits that collectively add up to a self-contained experience that’s pleasant, calming and interesting, all without being smug or patronizing.
The film is sort of like Alan in this regard, who returns to his tailor shop feeling lonely and pensive. He’s also become somewhat obsessed with his online Scrabble match against another player who goes by the moniker, “Skinny Thesaurus.” Alan thinks this mysterious individual may actually be Michael, but whether or not that’s true, his recent trip has left him longing to be around family, so he goes and visits Peter.
Peter, of course, wasn’t expecting Alan to just drop by, and he certainly wasn’t hoping for it, but the smiling and enthusiastic Sue tells her father-in-law, “Of course you’re welcome to stay!” This begins Alan’s indefinite visit with Peter, Sue and their reclusive adolescent son, Jack (Louis Healy). He plants himself down on Jack’s bottom bunk, and initially, the private, black cap-wearing Jack isn’t wild about the idea of his loquacious granddad commandeering his room. He’d rather be left alone and continue playing World of Warcraft than hear Alan reminisce about their family’s history or expound word etymologies.
But then an interesting thing happens: Jack thinks he could perhaps harness Alan’s haberdasher skills and knowledge to spruce up his dapperness and impress a girl named Rachel (Ella-Grace Gregoire), who Jack goes out-of-his-way to stand next to at a bus stop every morning. Sue, meanwhile, is giddy with delight, because despite Peter’s suspicions and cynicism, she senses Alan’s presence is changing their family dynamic, not least by encouraging Jack to come out of his shell and do things such as eat breakfast with them again. She also loves joining Jack and Rachel for a friendly game of Scrabble.
We’re delighted, too, because even though the film’s agenda becomes obvious, we still take pleasure in watching these characters grow and find new ways to communicate with one another, which reminds just how crucial communication is to maintaining relationships and finding fulfillment in our day-to-day lives. This is an age-old lesson of course, one that many films promote, but it’s also one we need to constantly re-learn if we’re to avoid the pitfalls of social and emotional plateaus.
“Sometimes Always Never” isn’t just a fable with a classical message, though; it’s also a visual and stylistic treat. The production design, art direction and cinematography give it a distinct, quasi-storybook feel, and the film is often a wonder to behold. Rich and textured matte paintings enliven many of the exterior shots; the interiors, such as the B&B and Peter and Sue’s modest house, are lit low-key and framed tightly, with the set pieces, including the furniture, resembling the kind you’d see in a fairy tale illustration; and there’s a strong use of primary colors for several objects in and around the coastal and forest locations (yes, some of the story takes place in a forest).
It’s clear what these artistic choices are meant to evoke, but nevertheless, they make the film more flavorful and Hunter is careful not to make them ostentatious. Even the knitted-looking interstices of dictionary words and definitions that precede each act prove to be charming instead of distracting. Hunter wisely prioritizes the characters over the world they inhabit and always keeps in check the human element of the story, and while I admit the message gets poured on a little thick at the end, particularly with Peter’s encounter with a waitress, it still works because of the simple joy we get out of knowing these people have learned something valuable, including their ability to recognize what they have in the here and now, be it family or two-letter words they never knew existed. “Sometimes Always Never” encourages us, in a tender, funny and entertaining way, to remember that such things shouldn’t be what we feel we have to make time for; they should just be our time.