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SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER: 3 ½ STARS. “balances a feeling of sorrow with whimsy.”

“Sometimes Always Never,” a new dramedy starring Bill Nighy and Sam Riley, applies a light touch to some heavy topics.

Adapted from Frank Cottrell Boyce’s short story Triple Word Score, the film sees Nighy play Alan, a widowed tailor with a fractured family. He has a strained relationship with his ice cream van painter son Peter (Riley) stemming from an incident decades before when his son Michael disappeared after an argument over a game of Scrabble. Alan is still a Scrabble fanatic—he’s a walking dictionary of obscure, high-scoring words like scopone and muzhik—but these days he mostly plays on-line. It’s there he comes across a competitor whose word choice and style of play reminds him of his AWOL son. Could it be Michael? “The only thing I am scared of is ding before I sort this thing out,” he says.

There’s more. Alan cheats a couple out of £200 bending the rules to his favor, and hips his grandson to the joys of Scrabble over first-person-shooter games but the heart of the movie has little to do with the word game. It’s a father and son story about a tormented man who is a master of words but could never find the right thing to say to either of his sons.

“Sometimes Always Never” plays on director Carl Hunter’s background in graphic design—he has designed record sleeves for The Clash and his own band The Farm—to create the movie’s stylized, quirky look. Visual echoes of Aki Kaurismaki and Wes Anderson resonate throughout, lending a kind of magic realism to a story that is grounded in basic humanity—a search for the missing piece of the family’s puzzle.

This is another of Nighy’s gently eccentric characters, a man touched with sadness but hopeful enough to pursue an answer to the mystery that has plagued him for years. Nighy is always immensely watchable but here he brings an easy, elegant charm to Alan despite the character’s emotional handicap.

“Sometimes Always Never” is a small film about big topics that balances an overarching feel of sorrow with heavy doses of whimsy. Eloquent both visually and emotionally, it speaks volumes about heartbreak even when the characters can’t quite find the words to do so themselves.

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