At the beginning of Forever My Girl, Liam Page (Alex Roe) leaves his hometown fiancée, Josie (Jessica Rothe), at the altar. Liam isn’t seen during this sequence; he’s first revealed years later as a massive country star playing arenas, transparently singing about pining for his ex. For a moment, there’s something funny and even thought-provoking about this movie and the straight line it draws (intentionally or not) between the succinct ruining of a postcard-perfect little church wedding and the transformation of that pain into a crowd-pleasing spectacle—especially when it ends with Liam parlaying his success into sex with a groupie.
It’s not a surprise that Forever My Girl doesn’t choose to continue down this path, exploring the cynical side of a country-rocker’s down-home connection to his audience. The surprise is how little else takes its place. Liam, who embodies music-industry debauchery as imagined by someone who doesn’t like imagining debauchery, is at peak popularity but emotionally hollowed out. Luckily, his best friend from high school (glimpsed in the wedding scene) dies off-camera and brings him back to St. Augustine, Louisiana for the funeral.
That may sound like a glib simplification of a sad event, but it’s barely more so than the movie itself. The plot kills off one of its only black characters (and weirdly sidelines his widow) in order to cause what amounts to a mild inconvenience en route to its white leads’ potential lifetime of happiness. Liam’s trip back to St. Augustine introduces him to Josie’s daughter, Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), who he quickly realizes is the daughter he never knew he had (the idea that Josie might ever have shown romantic interest in anyone over the past eight years is not addressed even momentarily).
At this point, Forever My Girl has burned through about half of its story, and just keeps burning from there. Although Josie first greets him by socking him in the stomach, it takes approximately one montage for her to trust Liam again, and even less time for him to become a demonstrably good dad. What else happens in this movie? Who can say? It’s genuinely difficult to account for the time that adds up to a full 105 minutes.
Forever My Girl looks and sounds like it could be this year’s Nicholas Sparks adaptation, but it’s adapted from the first book in a romance series by Heidi McLaughlin. This means that despite the plot-catalyst funeral, the grim specter of death doesn’t hover over the proceedings, which turns out to be a mixed blessing. The movie isn’t as off-the-charts shameless as Sparks, but it lacks the Russian roulette death-guessing game to occupy viewers who get bored.
Good romance novels can compensate for a thin story with attention to characters’ interiority, but any thoughts or feelings roiling beneath Josie’s surface don’t seem to matter much. Rothe showed in Happy Death Day that she can play a greater emotional range than she’s given here, where she’s at her mild best shooting daggers at Liam with her eyes. Roe doesn’t fare any better with more material; he often looks uncertain about how to hold himself physically in any given scene. Liam has a momentary lapse in his newfound parenting skills that is so indifferently acted and poorly staged that it takes several more scenes to realize that choking on a hot dog has become a pivotal plot point.
Giving Liam the mildest of parental tests is part of the movie’s fetishization of redemption coupled with squeamishness over actually showing any bad behavior, which is why our hero’s big movie-opening tabloid scandal involves him sprinting barefoot to a cellphone store. Despite the attempts to depict his lifestyle as an empty mess, writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf treats Liam’s wealth as a straight-up superpower, swooning uncritically at the promlike date it can buy for Josie (and like the 50 Shades series, it seems to consider a helicopter ride the ultimate aphrodisiac).
Wolf is a Louisiana native and obviously loves her location work, but not enough to imbue the writing or visuals with any life. This is the kind of movie that includes double-exposition dialogue: “There’s my little sister! You ready for your big brother to walk you down the aisle?” (Suggested follow-up line that must have been cut: “I can’t wait to see the look on your fiancé’s face when he sees you coming down that aisle to participate in a ceremony of marriage, if all goes according to plan!”) It’s the kind of movie in which a child’s adorableness is supposed to be predicated on how much of a li’l bitty adult they can act like (Fortson sounds like she’s been tutored by a young Dakota Fanning). It’s the kind of movie that looks like a love story and sounds like a love story, but is mostly about how lucky a girl can get when her ex’s best friend suffers a well-timed death.