Sometimes Always Never begins with a besuited Alan Miller (Bill Nighy) standing in a parking lot and facing the beach. He is on the phone with his son Peter (Sam Riley), explaining his location so they can meet. Alan wanders to an ice cream truck where three old ladies lounge on their Vespas eating cones. “Very Quadrophenia,” says Alan, announcing the launch of another quintessential Bill Nighy performance, outsized, subtle and dry, that carries director Carl Hunter’s and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce’s eloquent dramedy.

Alan hands mysterious fliers to the ladies when Peter joins him. The son drives so his father can play his Scrabble app. A great deal of the tension in their relationship is divulged in this scene through Peter’s resentment of his father’s hobby. They never had an official Scrabble board growing up. Alan bought Peter and his older brother knockoff editions of almost everything, so they learned the word game on Scribble and played with Action Joe figures. The fact is Alan has more in common with his anonymous online Scrabble partners than his son, a fact that Peter bitterly mumbles.

The purpose of their trip is a visit to a morgue. Peter’s older brother has been missing for years and a body has surfaced that fits his description. Austerity cuts have forced the morgue to close before the Millers arrive, so Alan manipulates Peter into staying with him at a bed and breakfast. Alan has a talent for making others do his bidding through understatement which he soon wields on the other guests at the establishment, Margaret (Jenny Agutter) and Arthur (Tim McInnerny). He and Arthur even engage in a high stakes Scrabble game, but the evening’s festivities come to a somber conclusion when Margaret reveals that the purpose of their visit is the same as Alan’s.

The Millers are spared tragic news at the morgue, but Alan remains restless and uses his guile on Peter’s wife, Sue (Alice Lowe), to create the pretext for a long-term visit. He gets to bunk and bond with his grandson, Jack (Louis Healy), commandeering the teenager’s gaming computer but augmenting the boy’s style. It turns out that Alan is a very fine tailor and owns a shop where he outfits the young man in a wardrobe befitting someone on the cusp of first love. Without his computer, Jack is forced to interact with his parents again, rekindling their stagnant relationships, but Alan’s motives are not pure. He believes one of his online Scrabble mates is actually his long lost son trying to make contact. The mystery that has haunted him continues, and Alan continues his obsessive sleuthing.

The acting in the film is exquisite with Agutter and Lowe particularly proving able partners to Nighy’s stardom. Hunter and cinematographer Richard Stoddard compose beautiful, detailed images that can make a room feel like a kingdom or a prison. They have an affection for shooting through arches and cracked doorways while displaying a love for the antiquated look of rear-screen projection for their driving scenes. But the real star here is Boyce’ script.

Frank Cottrell Boyce has enjoyed a prolific career as a screenwriter that includes noteworthy films like 24 Hour Party People, Danny Boyle’s Millions and Code 46. His work here is masterful with every scene establishing threads to the next and ultimately Alan’s answer. When the film looks like it’s about to find its way to something generic, he steers you toward the unexpected as if formula is a distraction in his sleight-of-hand show. His actors must adore him because he gives them dialogue to relish and scenes to show their range. It is a screenplay worthy of study that makes the quotidian feel electric.

One thing the lockdown has forced upon is a re-engagement with cinema as more than just spectacle. The blockbusters and franchises have been moved to clog the future, providing space for smaller films to receive recognition. It has been an involuntary cleansing that has forced reflection about the nature of this medium and what expectations should be moving forward. They’ll always try to sell us big and gaudy, but small films like Sometimes Always Never should be the focus of cinema’s future distribution model. It is one that is good for the soul.

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