It’s bad enough when you experience evil, but it can be even worse when you are a source of evil for others. Forever My Girl tells the story of a man who is trying to right a past wrong, but soon finds he cannot be redeemed until he discovers why he committed a heartless, hurtful act. Though hampered by problems of execution, the film has its heart in the right place and could even provide meaningful inspiration for its audience.
There is something unique about country music which can lend it to a Christian understanding of the human condition, especially since it often deals with the reality of suffering and loss while employing overt religious sentiment and imagery. Liam Page (Alex Roe) is a huge country music star with that most coveted of curses: being so rich and famous he can do almost anything he wants. And what he wants most is to drink bottles of whiskey and sleep until noon. Sure, he still performs his shows and sleeps with female fans, but he does so with passion of a 1960s educational film about the agricultural business. When a close childhood friend dies in a car crash, Liam performs his first voluntary action in years, leaving his entourage of sycophants and returning to his tiny hometown. Nobody wants him around, especially Josie (Jessica Rothe), his former fiancée (who had he left at the altar); Liam himself is at a loss to explain his visit. His apathy begins to dissipate, however, when it is revealed that Josie has an eight-year-old daughter, and he is the father. Perhaps there is something to live for after all.
The first scene of the film was an interesting choice. The audience sees Josie happily preparing for her wedding before getting the horrible news that Liam has skipped town for reasons unknown. When we do finally see Liam in the next scene, he appears incapable of making any decision, much less one so dramatic. He barely acknowledges the people around him and cannot look his production assistant directly in the eye. After finishing a great song to thunderous applause, he simply walks off set and out the door, as if he had just finished using the restroom. At first, I thought Roe was just a bad actor, but as the film progressed I realized that his performance was deliberate. This is how seriously depressed people act. They can find no joy or anger in anything, and even the smallest tasks are difficult.
When the audience is finally introduced to the reason for Liam’s departure, they learn it is not so much a reason as a condition of his spiritual life. He lost his mother at an early age and found it difficult to make any kind of commitment out of fear of another loss. He doesn’t want to deal with the pain and so – like Adam and Eve – he hides. It is a cruel result of original sin and pride that we often deal with our own suffering by inflicting suffering on others. Alcoholic parents often produce alcoholic offspring; children who are abused may become abusers themselves. If Liam is to have any role in the life of his daughter, he must accept the pain of the evil done to him and the responsibility of the evil committed by him.
Besides Liam, the focus of the film is Josie and her daughter Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson). Josie is wonderful example of a strong Southern woman. She proudly tells Liam that she “made something of [herself] after he left.” She doesn’t need a man to make her life meaningful, but understands that having the right man by her side would be better for both her and her child. But she refuses to allow Liam that privilege until he demonstrates repentance and genuine change, not just buying fancy presents for Billy. Unfortunately, Billy is the weakest character of the movie. Fortson is a great actress who received poor directing. She speaks with a vocabulary way above her age level and her reactions rarely make sense. Fortunately, she bonds with Liam over music and by the end of the film the two have the beginnings of a good relationship.
It is a sad fact that many of those who shape and influence American culture gloss over the pain of martial strife, and even promote divorce as healthy. Controversial comedian Louis CK summed up this attitude when he said, “Divorce is always good news. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true because no good marriage has ever ended in divorce.” People find countless ways to justify divorce, and many refuse to believe that reconciliation is possible or even desirable. Josie’s brother believes Liam’s new interest in Josie and Billy is just an act. “We all know you’re going to leave,” he grumbles. “It’s what you do.” But reconciliation is possible, and a couple can come back together after a betrayal. Yet, grace is not cheap, and repentance is an action, not a feeling. Ultimately, every child deserves a mother and a father, and all marriages require sacrificial love, for all marriages include a pair of sinners.
Forever My Girl works much better in its ideas rather than its portrayal. It is often sappy and slow, and the character of Billy never really lands squarely. Yet, it contains great music and some nice little moments that make up for its shortcomings. It’s a bit of a fairy tale, in which everything turns out perfect in the end. Reality might be more complicated, but hopefully the outcome is the same.
[Published in The Catholic World Report Dispatch, January 21, 2018]
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon.