“Never” may take place in the present, but its mopey low-fi indie character drama – set to earnest singer-songwriter tunes – feels as if it’s been transported from the early ’90s. Writer-director Brett Allen Smith’s quasi-romance meanders about with the same aimlessness as its characters, revealing nothing substantial about them, or twentysomething love and identity formation, as it details the budding bond between a straight man and a gay woman. Although the presence of Robin Williams’ daughter Zelda in a starring role may earn it some fleeting attention, its two-dimensional navel-gazing should doom its theatrical prospects to a few smaller-market screens.
Having previously made the second-tier festival rounds in 2014, the partly-Kickstarter-funded “Never” opens with a histrionic break-up phone call between Nikki (Zelda Williams) and her unseen girlfriend Rachel (Angela Sarafyan). Nikki’s wailing pleas and apologies are authentically pitiful, yet they do little to endear her to audiences. After this torturous intro conversation, Smith immediately abandons her to focus on Denim (Zachary Booth), whose name is almost as ridiculous as his personality is dull. Denim has recently moved to Seattle from the East Coast, and at his new job as a graphic t-shirt designer, he befriends co-worker Meghan (Nicole Gale Anderson), who takes him out with her friends to a music club, where he’s instantly transfixed by Nikki — who, it turns out, is a soulful, brooding piano woman.
At a party later that night populated by hipsters in animal costumes, Denim and Nikki strike up a conversation that soon leads to a tentative friendship, which is supposedly complicated by Meghan’s attraction to Denim — “supposedly,” because even though “Never” suggests that this dynamic will lead to trouble, the film winds up doing nothing with it. Then again, hinting at drama that subsequently fails to materialize is the most notable thing about Smith’s feature debut, whose script is an ambling, talkative affair in which illuminating, or even interesting, things are never actually uttered.
Despite the fact that the film intends for Denim and Nikki to eventually develop a thorny amorous connection, the duo shares no passionate chemistry, to the point that the story’s central conceit seems unduly, and absurdly, forced. Instead, they’re merely adrift millennials going about their ho-hum daily routines. In the story’s second half, set eight months later, Nikki is working as a barista and struggling to cope with her flagging music-career fortunes, as well as her roommates’ sudden decision to evict her from their art-collaborative apartment. Unfortunately, though, she remains, like Denim, a shopworn sort of woe-is-me cipher, and Williams’ portrayal of the aspiring crooner — marked by speaking in a low, clipped manner and darting her eyes about beneath her giant bangs — consistently comes across like an act.
Booth’s turn is no more accomplished, radiating only nondescript blandness, adding frustration to the barely-80-minutes-long film’s disinterest in fleshing out his and Nikki’s backstories — or their relationships with others. Nora Kirkpatrick’s soundtrack songs are all suitably slow and mournful, but given the vapid action at hand, they do little to imbue the proceedings with any genuine sense of longing or heartache. Moreover, by the time Denim and Nikki finally do confront their more-than-friends emotions for each other, the film is practically over — a situation that undercuts any attempt to seriously investigate their romantic confusion.
At every turn, Smith and cinematographers Alexander Sablow and Benjamin Verhulst’s visuals are flat and lifeless, and exacerbate the torpor that quickly consumes “Never.” As with Smith’s fluid-sexuality story and his leads’ acting-with-an-A performances, those aesthetics give the material a distinctly ’90s texture — and, in the process, reconfirm that youthful, low-budget amateurishness never goes out of style.