Frank Cottrell Boyce’s directorial debut is an unfocused mix of family estrangement and Andersonian kitsch.
Not to be confused with Eliza Hittman’s Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Sometimes Always Never is a British mystery film that on its face is about Peter, (Bill Nighy) a father searching for one of his two sons who walked out from a Scrabble game and never came back. But in reality, it’s more about the son who stayed, Peter (Sam Riley), and the family that was left behind. But for all of Carl Hunter’s visual distinctions, this film about family, loss, and Scrabble never quite hits the mark.
The notion of family is at the center of Sometimes Always Never‘s narrative, a strange, shaggy tale of estrangement and reconcilement. Alan and Peter get the most focus, with large swathes of the film just being conversations between the two of them. Alan is distant and obsessed with Scrabble, believing that somehow it can lead him to his lost son.
Nighy’s performance here is an interesting one. One the one hand, he doesn’t seem to be trying particularly hard here and is kind of interchangeable with a lot of his other performances. Every other character has this odd stab at a Northwestern English accent, which Nighy half-heartedly puts on for about three lines at the start of the film, then basically abandons. In general, he just seems to be sleepwalking through it all, except for a few fun moments. On the other hand, even a half-hearted Nighy performance is still pretty good; the man has an effortless charm that injects some fun into this very wooden script.
By contrast, Riley’s Peter is constantly frustrated with his dad for focusing so intently on the son that left and not him. You can see that Sam Riley is really trying here, but the script only gives him room to go from mildly frustrated, to more frustrated to angry, with a few notable exceptions. Riley does do the skulking frustration well, but there’s only so many times he can storm off before it starts to feel one-note and dull. Part of the problem here is that these two leads really don’t have much chemistry except for one scene at the end of the film. You get that they’re annoyed with each other, but you don’t really get the love part of the love/hate relationship which they’re supposed to have, which makes the central dynamic fall flat.
Beyond the central duo, there’s Peter’s wife Sue (Alice Lowe) and their son Jack (Louis Healy). Both of them give performances that are perfectly fine, but they never really get the chance to show any real acting chops. Jack feels like the trope of a teenager that’s at least a decade out of time. He plays video games all the time, dresses like a grunge singer, and never really leaves his room. His subplot involves him finally wooing the girl he has a crush on after Nighy gets him to cut his hair and wear a suit – which feels unearned and ridiculously dated. Lowe’s talents are wasted playing the good wife/embarrassing mother, with no complications to her.
Lowe’s treatment is reflective of a broader issue in the film. Whilst most of these characters are underwritten, the women get the worst of it. Peter’s mum isn’t in the picture. Sue’s character is wafer-thin. Rachel (Ella-Grace Gregoire) doesn’t have a sense of personhood or an internal life, she exists to be a reward for Jack leaving his room/shell and talking to people – something that’s especially frustrating since she’s the only person of colour in the film. Jenny Agutter plays Margaret, the other female character in the film, and whilst she gives a fun and endearing performance as a grieving mother in a struggling marriage, her behaviour feels very inconsistent. For a film that’s so focused on family and interpersonal connections, this is a gaping weakness.
By this point, you can probably tell that the weakest part of the film is Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script. It very much feels like a mediocre fringe festival script stretched to feature-length; it has an interesting premise but doesn’t really stick the landing. More specifically, the dialogue often feels very unnatural, with people sporadically having outbursts and monologues that don’t feel like they’ve been built up to in a meaningful way. Perhaps the most egregious example of this is when Gregoire painstakingly explains the parable of the prodigal son and compares it to the situation in the film, which feels both out of character for her and blindingly obvious.
It very much feels like a mediocre fringe festival script stretched to feature-length.
This film is also going for a very deadpan, quirky humour rather than laugh out loud comedy and it’s kind of hit or miss. At times the weird lines and choppy edits make for a good chuckle; at others, it seems like the film thinks it’s way funnier than it is. Also, a lot of the comic timing feels very off, and we end up with some badly directed moments where silences go from funny awkward to feeling like actors have forgotten their lines. Altogether, it feels like Boyce’s script was a few drafts away from completion.
The saving grace of Sometimes Always Never is in the filmmaking. From the opening shot of Nighy at the seaside to the latter scenes in the woods, Richard Stoddard’s camera beautifully captures the locations. The same goes for the interiors, Tim Dickel’s vibrant and meticulous pastel-heavy production design looks brilliant – even if it does veer away from naturalism. There are so many striking shot compositions throughout the film that even when you’re not especially interested in the action, there’s always something interesting to look at. Stephen Haren’s editing also does a lot of the heavy lifting, in terms of keeping the energy and humour which the script often lacks.
Sometimes Always Never is a perfectly watchable film. It isn’t trying to be an Oscar-winner or world-changer, and there’s nothing so offensively bad that it won’t be an okay film to have on in the background. But the lackluster script and characterisation mean it never has the emotional core that’s essential to the kind of comfy film with a loose premise that it’s trying so hard to be.
Sometimes Always Never is currently available on VOD.