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 genre that overwhelmingly appeals to a female movie-going audience, so it’s about time female creators have been given a place behind the camera 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 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.
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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 is an 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.
Forever My Girl
Rated: PG for thematic elements including drinking, and language. Starring: Alex Roe, Jessica Rothe, John Benjamin Hickey. Director: Bethany Ashton Wolf. Running time: 104 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 12, Majestic 18.