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FOREVER MY GIRL: 2 ½ STARS. “Hallmark movie by way of Harlequin.”

There are movies that surprise and surpass our expectations and there are those that don’t. The former feed the brain, the latter are like comfort food. With that in mind, “Forever My Girl,” the new romance starring Jessica Rothe, is meatloaf with a side of potatoes. Not good for you perhaps, and not really good at all, but somehow satisfying.

In a story that casts shade on Thomas Wolfe’s “you can never go home again” theory, “Forever My Girl” begins with Liam Page (Alex Roe), a small town boy made good. He’s a country music superstar, playing to packed houses and bedding groupies nightly. He’s also unhappy and suffering from writer’s block. As the country song on the soundtrack warbles, he’s “followed the script closely with whiskey, wimmen and pills.” When he learns his best friend from high school was killed by a drunk driver he goes AWOL, leaving behind a sold out tour to reconnect with his roots in St. Augustine, Louisiana.

No one is particularly happy to see him, not even his father (John Benjamin Hickey), the local minister. Even less thrilled is local florist Josie (Jessica Rothe), the woman he left on the altar when he skipped town to pursue his career. “No one has spoken about what you did here,” she says, “because we are family. We are loyal. Please just leave.”

Turns out there is more to the story in the form of Billy (Abby Ryder Fortson), a precocious eight year old and the daughter he never knew about. “I said I wanted to meet him,” Billy says, “but I didn’t say I would be easy on him.” As Liam reconnects with Josie, meets Billy and spends time with his dad the puzzle pieces of his life fall into place and he realizes what’s been missing. “I have no right to ask for anything,” he says, “but I’m here now.” You know the rest. (SPOILER ALERT) This is a romance not a tragedy.

“Forever My Girl” is written and directed by Bethany Ashton Wolf, based upon the novel by Heidi McLaughlin but is the kind of story Nicholas Sparks could conjure up in his sleep. The flowery Sparksian language is missing and there are no tearstained romantic letters—there is, however, a poignant voicemail saved on a duct-taped flip phone—but the spirit of everlasting love he exalts in parcels of passion like “The Notebook” loom.

London-born Roe has the dark good looks of a tortured country star and doers earnest quite well but it is the female stars that shine. As Billy, Fortson is a sparkplug with most of the film’s best lines. Rothe displays the natural charm that made her last performance in “Happy Death Day”—imagine “Groundhog Day” with a terrifying twist—so winning.

“Forever My Girl” isn’t great art. It’s a Hallmark movie by way of Harlequin that features nice looking people falling back in love but it’s the best non-Nicholas Sparks/Nicholas Sparks movie to come along in a while.

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