Film Review: Forever My Girl

Romantic escapism at its best and worst.
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It must be said at the outset: Forever My Girl is not a good movie. The premise is clichéd, the characters are as cookie-cutter as they come, and the message is so simplistic it is frequently imprinted on mass-produced pillows (“Home Is Where the Heart Is”). You’ve seen it before and you’ve seen it done in far cleverer fashion, in far greater earnest and with far greater soap-operatic relish.

And yet there is something damnably comforting about its familiar formula. In our opening scene, hometown Louisiana boy Liam Page (British eye-candy Alex Roe) ditches at the altar his wholesomely pretty, 19-year-old fiancée Josie (Jessica Rothe, or the girl in Emma Stone’s posse who wears the yellow dress during the “Someone In the Crowd” number in La La Land). Flash forward eight years later: Liam is now a mega-successful country star who shares a manager with Blake Shelton. His life is also emptier than a shotgunned Bud Light. He’s creatively blocked and unable to write the new batch of songs that his label is demanding. When Liam learns his former best friend has died, he makes an impromptu decision to return home for the first time since he split. Needless to say, Josie is less than pleased to see him, but that little seven-year-old girl with the same name as Liam’s dead mother and who calls Josie “Mom” further complicates matters between the exes. In spending time with the woman he still loves and the daughter he didn’t know he had, Liam realizes all that has been missing from his vapid life.

The questions are, of course: Will Liam really stick around? Will his self-loathing move him to hurt again and hurt worse the people he loves most? Will the hair stylist to Ms. Rothe ever post a YouTube tutorial? Inquiring minds.

Based on the young-adult romance novel by Heidi McLaughlin, Forever My Girl is a guilty pleasure, no doubt about it. It has the of-the-moment fashions, simplicity of narrative intent and execution, and conservative morals of a Hallmark movie. And therein lies its appeal. If you’re up on the latest network news, you’ll know that over the past year or so Hallmark has been killing it. According to The Washington Post, Hallmark was “the only non-news channel in the top 15 to see substantial viewership growth” in 2016. Numbers only increased for 2017.

Here’s WaPo journalist Heather Long on the network’s movies: “The main characters do the right thing. The problems get worked out. The guy and girl, whatever their age or grumpiness level at the start, always end up together.”

And there you have Forever My Girl. With the added note that not only the protagonists but nearly everyone in the cast (with the single exception of a heartless publicist from the big city; but she’s not family, nor, tellingly, is she shown to have a family of her own) is just so darn decent. Even Liam’s antagonist of sorts, Josie’s brother, who resents Liam for the heartache he’s caused his sister, is only a jerk because he loves his family so darn much. It’s discomfiting to consider that the bitterness of our daily news cycle has so affected our palates that mawkishness has come to seem like a welcome respite. Heaven forefend, but when Liam sings a duet with his daughter to a stadium full of people cheering their hearts out, don’t be surprised if yours skips a beat, too.

Is that such a bad thing? Forever My Girl is not a good movie, because whatever emotions it stirs are not the result of insights hard-won. It’s only trying to entertain, sure, but there’s something both compelling and icky about the way it so prettily reaffirms a belief in the primacy of the traditional. Or an idealized view of the traditional: families that are so loving, hurts are easily forgiven without lingering resentments; and neighbors who are so loyal not one—not one—will give up to the press a single photo or anecdote about their internationally famous hometown boy.

Far be it for me to (totally) knock something that reminds people of how nice it is to be tethered by responsibility. Traditional values are not synonymous with regressiveness. But when views of the world are too easy, like they are here, instead of providing a balm for the world’s hurts, they risk making reality feel that much more painful for emphasizing its distance from the fantasy. Baldly escapist movies like Forever My Girl should come with a warning, especially for the younger YA audience: Viewer, be wary of the comfort provided here.

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