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Sometimes Always Never 3Family, syn., blood, clan, kin, linage, tribe. Disappearance, syn., loss, concealment, hiding. Eccentric, syn., bizarre, erratic, off-kilter, off-the-wall, peculiar. Family, disappearance, and eccentric and their synonyms are words at the heart of this offbeat British melodrama in which an online Scrabble game reenergizes a father’s search for a long-lost son even as it stirs resentment in the child who remained home. Sometimes Always Never flirts with being twee (syn., cutesy, cloying, gooey), but never quite crosses that line, thanks to welcome doses of humor and assured performances form stars Bill Nighy and Sam Riley.

Nighy plays Alan, the oddball tailor and Scrabble hustler at the center of the story. Years before during a heated family contest of the word game (or a version of it, anyway), 17-year-old Michael walked off in a huff, never to be heard from again. Alan’s conviction that he has found his son in an anonymous online opponent in Scrabble pushes him toward imposing on son Peter (Riley) and his family, wife Sue (Alice Lowe) and teenage son Jack (Louis Healy). A short visit one evening turns into an extended stay, with Alan scarcely noticing Peter’s frustration and resentment while he schools his grandson on the importance of sartorial style and Scrabble strategy.

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The script by Frank Cottrell Boyce tonally resembles that of his screenplay for Danny Boyle’s Millions, a certain fairytale quality butting up against darker, more realistic notes. The fantasy aspects are further amped by the film’s production design, which would not be out of place in a Wes Anderson movie (granted, one on a far smaller scale than the typical Wes Anderson film). Even a road trip Alan and Peter undertake takes on a magical quality through director Carl Hunter’s liberal use of back projection. Locations in Yorkshire and the shore in Merseyside add to the air of enchantment.

Even one key grudge that Peter holds against Alan adds to the fanciful quality as the now middle-aged son rails against his widowed, single dad who would never buy him or Michael normal toys. Scrabble was not Scrabble. Legos were not Legos, and so on.  The family was not poor, but Alan was not – and is not – quite part of this world. It is a quality that has apparently only worsened in the intervening years as Alan obsesses over the absent child at the expense of the one who is present. At its most heavy-handed, Sometimes Always Never touches on the Biblical story of the prodigal son, a flourish that is a little too on the nose.

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This is a souffle of a movie and one in constant peril of falling flat. What keeps it buoyant is Nighy, playing Alan with a measure of sadness that grounds the character in reality, and Riley as the frustrated Peter, whose exasperation with a difficult parent is palpable. Alan has let Michael’s memory loom so large that it has crowded out the reality of Peter in his mind. The central question that Something Always Never seeks to answer in its own oddball way is which son Alan really needs to find. –Pam Grady

Sometimes Always Never is currently playing virtual cinemas, including Rafael@home and will be available on VOD platforms on July 10.