Movie Review: Slow, corny “Forever My Girl” seems to go on…

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“Forever My Girl” is a Nicholas Sparks romance without Sparks or sparks, without the beach; a small-town, broken people finding each other, a genial, low-heat courtship and lots and lots of talk. It’s as slow as a July 4 tractor parade and as corny as a Louisiana drawl, drawn-out for effect.

It could have been sold as a faith-based romance, as it has a preacher, a prodigal son, a funeral and small-town church services and a done-wrong woman who keeps the faith.

And for a film about a guy who leaves his fiance at altar, a child born out of wedlock and the dissolute, hard-drinking, one-night-standing country music superstar who doesn’t know she’s his, it’s oddly bereft of anything anyone would call “edgy.” If you’re a lip reader, you can see what little profanity was in an earlier cut was dubbed out for release.

But there’s probably an audience for it, because you can’t find romances this old fashioned anywhere but The Hallmark Channel.

Jessica Rothe (“Happy Death Day,” “La La Land”) is Josie, the young woman we meet on what is supposed to be her wedding day. The hubbub over the ceremony, the breathless dressing and preparations, have a soundtrack. Her intended’s got his first hit song on country music radio, and every Boudreaux and Thibideuax in tiny Saint Augustine, Louisiana is buzzing over it.

Until, that is, Liam Page is a no-show. The heel leaves Josie, his family and the town bereft. Liam (Brit Alex Roe of “The Fifth Wave”) goes off to find fame and fortune on the radio and on tour, singing big ol’country music lies about “My heart don’t have a home without you in it.”

But it’s an empty life of groupies, vodka and pricey hotel rooms.

It takes the death of a high school pal some eight years later to wake him out of his stupor. He heads back to “Saint,” fleeing his tour, his responsibilities and his manager (Pete Cambor) to figure out what he gave up.

Josie, who slugs Liam in the stomach first chance he gets, is part of that. So’s the preacher/father (John Benjamin Hickey) he hasn’t seen since leaving, either.

And so is Josie’s just-the-right-age daughter, Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson). Could she be…?

Of course she is, and it’s to writer-director Bethany Ashton Wolf’s credit that this “mystery” isn’t treated as such. Working from a Heidi McLaughlin romance novel, the focus is on forgiveness, rekindling old flames and accepting grownup responsibilities.

Or it would be, if the kid wasn’t such a cute-mouthed spitfire.

“I said I wanted to meet him,” she says of her mother about her father. “I didn’t say I was gonna be EASY on him!”
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But she is. The town may have its gripes about this lout who forgot where he came from and pretty much everybody who made him who he is. Her mom and uncle (Tyler Riggs) remember the hell he put her through. But the kid is charmed. Will he, she and two of them together win mom over?

Wolf gets some background color into all this, from the primly-annoyed locals who mutter “Idiot!” to Liam’s face at every opportunity, to the talented honky-tonk singer who never left the local honky tonk (Travis Tritt). A nice detail — Liam clings to his battered, vintage flip phone, held together by duct tape, because it has Josie’s last voice mail on it.

But the heart-melting moments don’t have that tug, the laughs aren’t much more than chuckles. And every character introduction, every incident, every scene unfolds in slow motion. “Sleepy time down South” never felt so boring.

That spreads to Liam’s “other” life, too. There’s no pop to the high-powered country-pop machine (publicists, reporters, his adoring public) that Liam leaves behind. There should be some edge, some testy-comic anger at the meal ticket who’s gone AWOL. There isn’t.

Roe does his own singing, but lacks much in the way of stage presence. Rothe cannot help but upstage him in their shared scenes any more than young Miss Fortson can.

The overarching problem is pacing and dramatic tension. Wolf, who made her name directing well-received short films like “Don’s Plum,” should know that watering down the conflicts robs her film of a villain, that there’s no drama without conflict, and that landing the right cute kid does not a finished movie make. It’s just a promising starting point.

1half-star

MPAA Rating:PG for thematic elements including drinking, and for language

Cast: Alex Roe, Jessica Roth, John Benjamin Hickey, Abby Ryder FortsonTravis Tritt

Credits: Written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf, based on the Heidi McLaughlin novel . A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 1:44

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