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Forever My Girl

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Romance novelist and screenwriter Nicholas Sparks cornered the market on a subgenre he essentially invented — exceedingly pleasant, Southern-set epic romances (between young, attractive, white, Christian, heterosexual couples).

But this is a subgenre that overwhelmingly appeals to a female moviegoing audience, so it’s about time female creators have been given a place to shape the voice and perspective of these stories. Writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf has adapted Heidi McLaughlin’s novel in “Forever My Girl,” a tale of love lost and found.

Love is lost when homegrown country pop star Liam Page (Alex Roe) ditches his high school sweetheart Josie (Jessica Rothe) at the altar during a frenzy surrounding his first hit single. Eight years later, he’s become the Justin Bieber of contemporary country music, an instantly recognizable, overly-entitled enfant terrible pursued by rabid mobs of fans and photographers everywhere he goes.

Sad news from his hometown of Saint Augustine, La., sets Liam on a course back home, much to the chagrin of his long-suffering manager Sam (Peter Cambor) and high-powered Hollywood publicist Doris (Gillian Vigman). No one at home seems to be all too pleased to see him either. Not his dad, Pastor Brian (John Benjamin Hickey), and definitely not his ex, who slugs him a good one. The only one who seems remotely interested is — drumroll, please — his 7-year-old daughter, Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), whose existence comes as a complete surprise to Liam.The precocious Billy is the catalyst for Liam and Josie to reunite, and for Liam to leave his bad boy ways behind, embracing fatherhood. But she never feels like a real character. Instead, she’s simply a device to enable Liam to find himself. Her dialogue is always a bit too pointed, picking up a guitar and asking him to show her how to write songs. Even her name, Billy, is a reference to his deceased mother. In trying to answer the question “what happened,” the film twists itself up in ham-fisted psychological explanations. At a certain point, you wish the poor guy could just get some therapy.

Rothe and Roe have a palpable chemistry, and she makes the most of her scorned Southern belle role, not that she has all that much agency, waiting around for Liam to get it together. “Forever My Girl” is truly a showcase for the British hunk Roe, who is gifted with a pair of piercing blue eyes, all the better to smolder with, and the ability to wear a T-shirt better than anyone else has ever worn a T-shirt. His Liam is tortured, bratty and ultimately broken, and because he seeks redemption, he is redeemable within the world of the story.

“Forever My Girl” doesn’t stray from the formula or do anything revolutionary. The story is resolved a bit too easily, but that works for the world of the film, which is sanded down, buffed out, a bucolic, “Steel Magnolias”-inspired fantasy land of wide front porches, charming flower shops and the mega-famous rock stars that wander into them. This uncomplicated romantic tale of a man trying to do right by the women in his life may even be pure fantasy. But for an audience seeking fluffy, escapist, country music-tinged romance, it’ll hit a sweet spot.Based on a YA novel by Heidi McLaughlin, the endearingly old-fangled Forever My Girl is basically a stretched-out country music song with eye-catching Southern visuals and a familiar loop of lovelorn sorrow topped with uplift you can see coming from scene one.

The woe comes on fast when a dewy young bride named Josie (Jessica Rothe) gets jilted at the altar by her high-school sweetheart, Liam, a pretty, green-eyed fellow with a lot of fetching chin stubble. He and his music are nicely played by Alex Roe, who is British but not so’s you’d notice. Eager to hit the big time, a panicked Liam takes off for New Orleans, though why he can’t take Josie with him is a mystery that will languish unexplained until shortly before the close.

Eight years pass, and we find Liam, a deeply unhappy country music god in all the usual ways — drugs, booze, groupies. He writes and performs songs with blaring themes like “I’d Give it All Up for You.” Concertgoers, average age thirteen, are ecstatic, but Liam sits around pining over a message on an ancient cell phone until a convenient tragedy propels him homeward. There he lands in deep doo-doo with a singularly unreceptive Josie, to say nothing of his entire hometown populace and his father, who happens to be the local pastor.

Liam may have been golden among the fleshpots of New Orleans, but when he first blows into town, everyone wants to slug him or ignore him. Everyone, that is, except for a feisty young girl named Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), who is lumbered with dialogue better suited to a cocky teenager, and who is destined to bestow much-needed character-firming on the prodigal from out of town.

Writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf has a deft way with actors, and Peter Cambor is especially good as Liam’s long-suffering but humane manager. The movie flows along atmospherically with a country soundtrack corralling our emotions. The problem is not the well-worn plot or familiar characters, but the fact that Wolf adds no depth or complication to either that would make the film her own.

Marinated in country-music mythology, Forever My Girl extracts every last ounce of juice from the potent fantasy binary of small town integrity versus big city sin, before marrying the two with minimal fuss and bother that must have looked plausible on paper. One sermon about forgiveness from the pastor, and instant turnaround ensues. Copious hugging ensues as well, and in a trice Liam is happily digging flowerbeds and coming on like a mature family man.

Of running time necessity, the love of his life defrosts more slowly, until at last we arrive at the statutory eleventh-hour lapse the almost derails Liam’s makeover, but helps him get in touch with the source of his pain. Not that anyone in this pleasant, glib movie has to sacrifice a thing. Josie may be a small-town girl, but it turns out that she, too, knows how to play to the roar of the crowd in the fleshpots of New Orleans. Cakes are had and eaten, all’s well between the country and the city, and … that’s a wrap.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).

 

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