The small-town-Louisiana-set Forever My Girl kicks off with a Hallmark-perfect setup: In about twelve minutes, beloved local Josie Preston (Jessica Rothe) is set to marry her high-school sweetheart, Liam Page (Alex Roe), in the very church in which the husband-to-be’s father, Brian (John Benjamin Hickey), presides as pastor. But the rosy circumstances deteriorate almost immediately, when the bridesmaids inform Josie that Liam — who is said, by various chipper attendees, to have a song on the radio that could turn him into a “bona fide country star” — will not be attending the wedding. Flash-forward eight years later, and the much-hyped Liam has, indeed, exploded into a bona fide — and glaringly unhappy — star, headlining major venues packed with adoring fans. However, news of a tragic death in his home town inspires him to ditch his expensive international obligations and return to Louisiana, thus setting the stage for the movie’s earnest, treacly, overly honeyed assortment of themes: celebrity ennui; small-town solidarity; the everlasting power of first love; the redeeming force of homemade gumbo.
The shortcomings of Forever My Girl — which was written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf and based on the book of the same name by Heidi McLaughlin — stem directly from that premise and its attendant confusions. Wolf wants to strike simple and familiar chords: The remorseful big shot comes home and rediscovers the warm values of family, food, romance, family. But for them to ring true demands that viewers gloss over a lot of the backstory and its complications. Enough unanswered questions pile up that Wolf and company could have made a separate feature just dealing with the discards, starting with those pivotal, invisible eight years connecting the prologue to the rest of the tale. The funeral that draws Liam back home is said to be that of his “best friend” from high school, but we never learn what they meant to each other or why their connection was so strong it incites Liam’s fundamental reappraisal of his lifestyle. Since a lot of Liam’s supposed transgressions during his time in the limelight remain vague, the venom directed toward him at times is mysterious: When Josie’s brother (Tyler Riggs) finds Liam in an empty bar and says, with seething disdain, “Had a feeling you’d be here,” you’d think he just found the guy hovering over a dead body.
Wolf sprinkles in scenes of Liam singing (“Don’t water down my whiskey”), which she and the editor, Priscilla Nedd-Friendly, afford pleasingly generous, stretched-out length. But at other moments, Wolf relies too much on the country-heavy soundtrack to stir the feelings her scenes alone cannot. It’s impossible to take Roe (who’s charming enough in the part) seriously when a basic shot of him waking up in his childhood bed is partnered with a sorrowful musical accompaniment that makes it sound as if he’s just witnessed Armageddon. When Liam struts about the town in sulking-loner mode or slouches solitarily on a stoop with something to drink, Roe — in his form-fitting T-shirts and ruffled-up jeans — can come off less as a sincerely saddened heartthrob than a laid-off J.Crew model. But he does have vivid gestures, particularly early: The seamless, second-nature way he stumbles into his manager’s hotel room after a long night and plops himself lazily on the couch — demanding “I need an espresso” — is a crisper illustration of personality than anything Liam does throughout the rest of the movie.
That’s mostly because the story, by design, emphasizes showdowns of pre-ordained conflict: Josie and Liam’s first conversation in eight years (she punches him in the stomach); Liam’s heated initial discussions with the widowed father he callously abandoned (a shouting match near the grill in the back yard); Liam’s discovery of the precocious daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson) whose existence upends his languor. It’s an uphill climb for any actor to reveal a distinct personality in scenes all about unseen events from years before. Wolf establishes only a half-formed idea of the decisions, fights and silences that have shaped these characters’ lives, so the cast often seems to be shouting into a vacuum.
Where the movie occasionally locates some surprise and resonance is in the tiny exchanges, when Wolf allows her characters to breathe, free of the demands of a schematic narrative. Liam and his father’s ongoing parley about coffee — Liam hates the stuff his dad makes and orders an espresso machine on which he leaves Post-it-note instructions — is a charming and lively mini-story all on its own of hesitant father-son recalibration. Josie, too, seems most specific not in her predictable rehashings with Liam, but in the episodes set in the fetching flower shop she owns and operates. Her unyielding, unquestioned patience with an elderly customer who counts out her change at a snail’s pace says far more about small-town grace than overreaching, sloganeering lines like, “We’re a family; we’re loyal.” These promising characters and scenarios would have been better suited by a framework that wasn’t built exclusively to tug heartstrings, the most egregious example being a shot of Liam standing outside Josie’s house in the rain screaming her name — an overbearing, Nicholas Sparks-style climax of romantic yearning.