The American health care industry doesn’t exactly conjure up images of sweet romance, but leave it to YA lit and Netflix—two mass-market industries designed to throw romance-adjacent, undercooked pasta at the wall and see if any sticks—to wade into deep systemic problems with little interest in examining their shortcomings.
In Purple Hearts, Netflix’s newest based on a Tess Wakefield book by the same name, Cassie (Sofia Carson, whose resume is heavy with Disney Channel stuff) can’t afford insulin and is constantly on the verge of death, when she’s not, y’know, slaying hard-rock versions of “Sweet Caroline” with her cover band. When a handful of conservative Marines with supermodel-good looks enter her bar one night, however, she hatches a plan to marry one (Nicholas Galitzine, The Craft: Legacy) shotgun-style for his health insurance—if she can hang with his, shall we say, white male leanings.
Lo and behold, though, despite the two bickering over just about everything, their antagonism blossoms into eventual romance. Lessons learned; kisses kissed; roll credits.
Purple Hearts lacks even a hint of innovation and instead favors pre-determined love story plot beats. Take, for instance, Cassie’s band: She sticks to covers because she lacks confidence in her own ideas, but as she gains the ability to believe in herself because a dude came along, she writes the bland pop-anthems that propel her to superstardom (while miserably failing the Bechdel Test). Think of it as part of the Disney-Channel-to-record-sales pipeline; and know that Purple Hearts remains a bureaucratic film.
This isn’t to imply Carson or Galitzine lack talent, but talent shines brightest under a director who has perspective to offer, or at least a working knowledge of how to extract something real from their performers. Director Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum (whose work on the Netflix serial Dead to Me is magnitudes better) doesn’t wield any sharp tools. She finds an energetic pulse, yet can’t get the sparks flying. And anyway, the principal actors in Purple Hearts are far too made up, too polished, too statuesque to make any kind of statement about the struggles of the common person, even if that’s what the film is supposed to be about.
OK, but let’s concede to watching for the eye candy alone. Despite its shallow nature, this is one of the more enjoyable trash films Netflix has put out in a hot minute. Trash still stinks, though, and it’s tough to swallow how Purple Hearts could really be so shallow as to use our current political divide as an analogue of Romeo and Juliet. Come to think of it, though, that one’s kind of creepy, too.
You will never learn what the film’s ideology is, or if it even has one, which is particularly jarring in that its main character’s motivation is basically death by poverty. According to Purple Hearts, if we were all just a little nicer, we could all move ahead swimmingly. What do you mean we’ve got societal collapse—have we tried kindness? Singing? Fundamentally changing our viewpoints on the war machine? Insulin or not, we should just try those things, especially for a boy with dreamy eyes.
Romance is one of the harder genres to pull off and is often stymied by thin plots, over-trod tropes or, gulp, erotic cuteness. But a great love story is often about personal emancipation; learning lessons—not holding on too tight. If the lesson on offer here is something about liberalism or respecting the US military, then holy shit; if it’s that we should commit fraud to game the American healthcare system? Well, that sounds a little better. Too bad we never learn which it is, if it’s either or if it’s something else altogether. Those stars sure are sexy, though.
+Energetic, decently engaging
Directed by Elizabeth Allen Rosenbaum
With Carson and Galitzine
Netflix, NR, 122 min.