The inimitable Bill Nighy stars in a whimsical yet dramatic (the perfect combination) film “Sometimes Always Never,” written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and directed by Carl Hunter. Alan (Nighy) is a distracted older gentleman whose overt obsession appears to be playing Scrabble, but his true focus is finding his long-lost son, or as the rest of the family calls him, the “Prodigal Son.” It’s a film filled with laughter and, most importantly, love and forgiveness, as this father-son pair search for the meaning in their lives and begin to heal.
Alan and Peter (Sam Riley) are meeting to attend an event no parent or sibling should ever have to: identifying the son’s remains. Boyce doesn’t initially let us in on where they are going and why, which gives way to squeeze in a bit of humor and allows us to get a glimpse into the bitter and antagonistic, yet still caring, relationship between Peter and Alan. We also learn the game of Scrabble, or Scrubble as their family’s knock off version was called, was at the center of their dynamics growing up, and Alan is a Scrabble hustler. As Peter and Alan meander through no man’s land, questioning whether or not there is hope for finding his son, Alan begins to find a new path in life, one that includes Peter; his wife, Sue (Alice Lowe); and the “troubled” teen Jack (Louis Healy).
Alan’s relationships with each of these characters add yet another element of complexity, a richness to the story and Alan’s world. As Alan becomes Jack’s new bunkmate for an indeterminate time, much to his chagrin, Jack and Alan bond, helping one another find their way. Alan reaches Jack in ways only a grandparent can, which creates a heartwarming connection to the story, the film and the characters.
Alan’s and Peter’s past is wrought with emotional pitfalls, but this game of Scrabble just might be their saving grace. Facing the past and looking to the future requires a few additional characters to intervene who not only create diversions but also substitutions. Just like the game of Scrabble, finding one word to substitute for another, a thesaurus to build your vocabulary, Alan must face his past and the truth of the future and see what is in front of him. Substitutions aren’t always equivalents.
While the subject matter sounds incredibly heavy, and it is, it is exceedingly comical. The tone, thanks to the lightness of the music, assures you the film is going to be fun and it will remain so. But this mood never takes away from the meaning behind the importance of the heartbreak and the need to heal and live. It’s a delicate balance and Nighy, of course, executes this with the utmost precision and skill. He portrays Alan as an intelligent and wise man who radiates pain and loneliness with a matter-of-fact directness but is never outwardly angry. His style of communication is key in connecting with his grandson as he opens the doors to Jack’s school and love life. The awkwardness and honesty between these characters is as sweet as it is charming.
On the other hand, Riley has a much more difficult role as the “other son,” or the “one who didn’t run away.” Riley portrays Peter with such beautiful complexity exhibiting emotional scars that lie just beneath the surface, waiting to emerge and be discovered. But again, the humor also is there, as his relationship with his father is not an easy one. His mutterings and reactions strike a comedic chord that adds levity to an otherwise very difficult situation.
The entire cast is superb, gelling to create not just a believable story, but one that is engagingly entertaining. Using the game of Scrabble to set up dialogue opportunities and conversations among the characters is priceless. We learn so much about each of the characters, from their competitiveness to what is happening in their lives as well as a few new words to add to our lexicon. (Do you know what a GRIOT is or how many real two-letter words there are?) This lost art of game-playing is so much more than winning or losing; it’s interacting and learning about one another.
“Sometimes Always Never” is an example of filmmaking at its finest as it tackles a difficult topic but finds elements of humor to carry the emotional load. With Nighy leading the film and an exceptional cast of characters, you have a film that is not just enjoyable — it’s unforgettable.
Reel Talk rating: 4 Stars