'The Lost Husband': Film Review

The Lost Husband - Publicity still - H 2020
Quiver Distribution
Loses the narrative thread.

Young widow meets "hot farmer" and at the same time uncovers family secrets in a Texas-set romance starring Leslie Bibb and Josh Duhamel.

Fish-out-of-water story, grief drama, opposites-attract rom-com, family-secrets saga and ode to country living — there are plenty of facets to The Lost Husband, and none of them feels particularly fresh or urgent. With its homespun Hallmark vibe, though, writer-director Vicky Wight's adaptation of a 2013 novel by Katherine Center might be just the kind of comfort food that fans of the romance genre crave right now.

Leslie Bibb and especially Josh Duhamel lend a gentle spark to the story of a recently widowed mother of two whose emotional rehabilitation involves learning to run a dairy farm. Wight (who wrote Boy Genius) establishes an idyllic sense of place but struggles to pull together the numerous threads of the novel, ultimately milking the scenery at least as much as Bibb's character milks the goats.

The actress-producer plays Libby, who leaves Houston with her young son (Roxton Garcia) and tween daughter (Callie Haverda) for the farm of her long-lost Aunt Jean (Nora Dunn, in overalls). A woman of few words, Jean is the independent, unconventional antithesis of Libby's mom, Marsha (Sharon Lawrence), who's an almost comically drawn villain. Fussily dressed, judgmental and glaring, she drops insults like ashes from her cigarette. She hasn't a maternal bone in her body — and the crucial difference between biological parenthood and caring for a child is one of the potentially stirring ideas that's reduced to a plot point.

Even with a big secret simmering between them, the estranged sisters' animosity is played right on the surface, like pretty much everything in the picturesquely generic proceedings. The friction/attraction between Libby and her aunt's farm manager, O'Connor (Duhamel), offers the only exception, at least sporadically. Even as it travels a well-trod romantic path from insults to wariness to the big clinch, there's a nicely underplayed tension between the transplanted city girl and the avowed country boy. Duhamel's sly delivery and self-possession make O'Connor the movie's least neatly defined and most enjoyable character, whether he's helping a kid stand up to bullies or ratcheting up the "hot farmer" act when Libby runs into frenemies from Houston.

Like Libby, O'Connor is dealing with a personal loss, but one that's far better explained than hers. The circumstances of Libby's husband's death become less coherent every time they're broached, the screenplay suggesting complications that go unclarified and unexplored. Wight and Bibb do, however, persuasively convey Libby's awakening to the joys of the farm, particularly in a sweet scene with the goats that makes apt use of Bill Withers' "A Lovely Day," lending a touch of poignancy just days after his death.

Through no fault of the actors, two characters that are meant to defy stereotypes feel instead like collections of traits to be filed under "quirky": Jean's boyfriend Russ (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) is an attorney, feed-shop owner and self-declared conservative — of note only because he's black — and his granddaughter Sunshine (Herizen Guardiola) combines unconvincing backstory with immature rudeness, spiritual pronouncements and unasked-for palm-reading sessions.

Mostly, though, the film occupies a place of stock situations and predictable arcs. And through all its half-realized plotlines, The Lost Husband teases out a family mystery. The long-hidden truth, revealed with distracting deliberateness, is hardly the intended bombshell. Even though the movie poses questions worth pondering, it's self-inoculated against doing the pondering. With all the long, loving glances at the orderly pastel interiors of Jean's home, and the constant nudging reassurance of the score, the narrative has been too padded against sharp angles to register a seismic jolt.

Available for VOD streaming through iTunes
Production companies: Redbox Entertainment, Six Foot Pictures
Distributor: Quiver Distribution
Cast: Leslie Bibb, Josh Duhamel, Nora Dunn, Sharon Lawrence, Herizen Guardiola, Kevin Alejandro, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Georgia King, Carly Pope, Callie Haverda, Roxton Garcia, Stone Garcia
Screenwriter-director: Vicky Wight
Based on the novel by: Katherine Center
Producers: Bridget Stokes, Vicky Wight, Leslie Bibb
Executive producers: Matt Ballesteros, Coert Voorhees
Director of photography: Aaron Kovalchik
Production designer: Diz Jeppe
Costume designer: Olivia Mori
Editor: Suzanne Spangler
Music: Sherri Chung
Casting director: Rori Bergman

Rated PG-13, 110 minutes