Forever My Girl is a sweet but slight romantic drama that got lost on its way to the Hallmark Channel — or, more likely, was rebuffed by that channel’s gatekeepers for being, even by their standards, entirely too predictable — and wound up in theaters instead. It resembles nothing so much as a prosaic adaptation of a second-tier Nicholas Sparks novel, and doubtless will play best with audiences who think critics are much too harsh on movies that really are spawned by Sparks’ literary output.
You have to give credit to Bethany Ashton Wolf’s adaptation of Heidi McLaughlin’s novel Forever My Girl‘ for not shying away from its clichés. This Hallmark Channel-style romance about a country music superstar who returns to his hometown after many years and discovers that he has a 7-year-old daughter proudly embraces its aw-shucks romanticism and family-friendly bromides. The film’s committed sincerity should well please its target audience.
Liam’s underlying unhappiness becomes evident the next morning when the hapless groupie steps on his vintage cell phone and breaks it. Desperate to have it repaired so he can retrieve a message, he races barefoot down a New Orleans street and bursts into a phone store, promising $10,000 to whoever can fix it.When Liam finds out that his former best friend has been killed in a car accident, he returns to his small Louisiana hometown for the funeral. He finds a distinctly chilly reception from the residents and even his own father (John Benjamin Hickey), the local pastor, whom he hasn’t bothered to contact since he left years earlier. But Liam decides to stick around for a while after he runs into his former girlfriend Josie (Rothe) and quickly figures out that he’s the father of her precocious 7-year-old daughter Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson).
Ah, but appearances can be deceiving: He still treasures the antiquated flip-top cellphone that contains a forlorn message left years earlier by Josie (Jessica Rothe of “Happy Death Day”), the woman he left behind. Of course, he never has answered that message. In fact, he’s refrained from contacting any of the folks back home — including his estranged father, Brian (John Benjamin Hickey), the local pastor — while single-mindedly stoking his stardom, entertaining millions, and partying hearty. When he receives word of a childhood friend’s death in an auto mishap, however, Liam impulsively takes a return trip to St. Augustine.
Once he’s there, it doesn’t take long for him to have an awkward encounter with Josie. (Specifically, she punches him in the gut after she spots him at the friend’s graveside service.) It takes only a bit longer for him to realize that Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), Josie’s precocious daughter, is the child he never knew he fathered.
Much of “Forever My Girl” is devoted to Liam’s eager if not desperate attempts to bond with Billy. Much to his delight, and Josie’s discomfort, she readily accepts him as her dad — but not before busting his chops. (“I said I wanted to meet him,” Billy tells her disapproving mom, “but I never said I’d go easy on him.”) This budding relationship probably would be more engaging if Fortson weren’t encouraged so often to come across as a mouthy brat, and if the movie as a whole didn’t proceed at such a glacial pace.
Writer-director Wolf takes far too long to introduce any sort of impediment to the forging of a father-daughter connection and, inevitably, the formation of a nuclear family. Worse, when that impediment finally does arrive, in the form of a childhood trauma revealed with almost comical abruptness, the plot twist feels exactly like what is, an arbitrary contrivance introduced only to briefly delay happily-ever-aftering.
Wolf might have done better to expand upon some potentially interesting plot elements — such as the response of the other townspeople to Liam’s years-ago departure, and the musical career of Liam’s late mom — that are fleetingly referenced, then immediately forgotten.
The movie benefits from moments of mildly amusing comic relief, especially when the usually pampered Liam must cope with such complexities as signing a digital credit card receipt or ordering merchandise online. Roe and Rothe are blandly sincere as the romantic leads, but Peter Cambor gets a few good laughs as Liam’s repeatedly infuriated but ultimately supportive manager, a character who sporadically reminds the audience that, yes, there are real-world country music superstars. At one point, he gazes at his cellphone and exclaims: “Oh, crap! It’s Blake Shelton! I gotta take this!” And so he does.