“A grieving father searches for his missing son” sounds like the hoariest of hoary plot devices, but it only scratches the surface of the story told in Sometimes Always Never, a recent British comedy-drama now available for streaming via San Rafael’s Smith Rafael Film Center. The film will also be available on-demand beginning July 10.

Adapted by Frank Cottrell Boyce from his short story ‘Triple Word Score,’ Sometimes Always Never stars Bill Nighy as Alan, a tailor whose eldest son Michael has been missing for years. Michael’s brother Peter (Sam Riley, best known for his memorable performable as Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in 2007’s Control) resents his sibling’s status as prodigal son, but grudgingly agrees to drive Dad around when a new lead emerges.

Spending the night at a seaside hotel, Alan has an opportunity to engage in his other obsession: Scrabble. Finding a set in the hotel lobby, he challenges two other guests to a game, wryly observing that “the only good thing about jazz is it scores very high in Scrabble.” Reminding Dad that there’s only one ‘z’ per set, Peter not so subtly suggests his father might sometimes keep an extra letter up his sleeve.

Sometimes Always Never is, of course, more about Peter and Alan’s frayed relationship than it is about their search for Michael. Liverpudlian Boyce is one of Britain’s best film writers, and his witty screenplay reflects his Merseyside background: dry and self-deprecating. Sometimes Always Never’s sharply drawn depiction of contentious family matters steers well clear of the mawkish sentimentality a similar Hollywood production would fall back on.

Set in northwest England (the best part of the country, as most sensible people agree), the film also marks the directorial debut of Carl Hunter, a Bootle boy Americans may remember from his time playing bass for The Farm on their massive 1990 hit ‘All Together Now’. Connections to late 20th-century pop culture don’t stop there, however: former Orange Juice frontman Edwyn Collins (‘A Girl Like You’) contributed the film’s score and title tune, while Marxist comedian Alexei Sayle (‘The Young Ones’) pops up for a third-act cameo.

Cinematographer Richard Stoddard, meanwhile, doesn’t feel obliged to wobble (or even move) his camera unless the story actually requires it (regular readers may recall my occasional rants about shaky-cam over the years). I have no idea why this excellent film didn’t previously warrant an American theatrical release, but put that aside: it’s here now, and if you’re looking for an intelligently written and heartwarming comedy-drama, Sometimes Always Never comes up aces.

Two excellent freebies to watch: ‘The Black Panthers’ and ‘Too Late for Tears’

If you’re pinching your pennies, there are a couple of excellent freebies available this week, including Agnès Varda’s 1968 documentary The Black Panthers, currently streaming gratis on the Criterion Channel (note: the link works well in Safari, but doesn’t seem to work in Firefox). Shot in Oakland while Varda’s husband Jacques Demy was in Los Angeles filming The Model Shop, The Black Panthers features a jailhouse interview with Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael and Bobby Seale holding forth, and lots of great footage of The Town half a century ago.

Finally, Flicker Alley offers a one-time free screening of the noir classic Too Late for Tears (1949) at 7 p.m. on Friday, June 12. Starring Dan Duryea and Lizabeth Scott as a villainous couple trying to do in Liz’s husband (Arthur Kennedy), the film will be followed by a live Q&A with Film Noir Foundation president Eddie Muller. Essential!

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...