One evening as I was scanning Netflix to see if there was something I wanted to watch, I noticed the trending list and I saw that the film Purple Hearts was listed at #7. I remembered receiving a release announcement via email what seemed like a month prior from Netflix. I was surprised to see the film trending as I didn’t think that it would last on the platform very long.
The ‘coming soon’ email contained a photo of a young man dressed in fatigues, presumably a soldier, and a young woman embracing, plus a synopsis about their romance. To be honest, I dismissed it as it didn’t seem to be the type of story I would be interested in. I’m usually on the lookout to stream stand up comedians, dramatic ensemble work, well-written and acted comedies, documentaries, classic sitcoms, and older classic films.
But on this night I decided to take a chance and find out what this film had to offer. I ended up being surprised about some of the issues woven into the characters’ lives in the setting of Oceanside, CA. As I watched, I slowly let go of my original judgments that were merely based on photos in a promotional email from Netflix.
At the beginning of the film, I wondered why main character Cassie asks her friend and fellow waitress to cover her for five minutes. We follow her as she goes to her car in the middle of her night shift. What is she hiding? Is she a drug addict? As I was about to stop the film and choose something else, Cassie gets into her car, pricks her finger, then slides a slender tab into a glucose level meter. I then understood that something much more interesting was going on, and I wanted to follow Cassie’s journey. By the time we are shown the scene in which Cassie is at her local pharmacy trying to obtain refills of insulin, and the pharmacy clerk hands her two choices, both of which are untenable for her, I was all in. The reality of health insurance coverage not being adequate for so many who have been diagnosed with chronic disease is not lost on me. And neither is the high cost of prescription medications.
Cassie’s toughness, persistence, and focus on her music career are one of the engines that propel this film forward. And it was something I found both compelling and moving about her character. She faces obstacles, and yet she isn’t giving up on her goals. She is working three jobs, pursuing her art, and she has no time for the clowns who roll into the bar one night; Marines who raucously announce themselves as those who think they should be the center of attention. When one of the boys crassly mentions something about being good enough to fight for her but not being good enough to touch Cassie’s ass, she verbally serves him. A few minutes later she also serves his buddy, who attempts a weak apology for the crass-mouthed one while also trying to hit on her with “what’s your name?” It’s clear that she’s not having their nonsense, nor does she think much of them other than that they will be more than the usual amount of work for the night. She mentions the word “evil” referring to the timing of the group’s pending, predictable, alcohol-driven bad behavior. Her fellow waitress laughs with her while sharing that one of the boys tells her that she might want to reconsider her choices after she tells him that she has a girlfriend.
Some of the characters who appear in the bar scene just mentioned and in a later dinner scene, speak and act as if they are begging to have a drink poured on them, a middle finger raised in their direction, or eyes rolled in response (mostly by anyone who is not comatose). Or, perhaps they deserve a well-tuned verbal response to their ignorance, if something like that exists. I found them to accurately portray some of the humans that do live, breathe, and exist in this world who could easily provoke their targets to have such responses. And if there was no tension created by the behavior of these characters, it would be difficult for the story to move forward. Stories don’t breathe and move without tension, and a story such as this one wouldn’t be a story if all of the characters shared the same beliefs, agreed with one another, and rode off into the sunset together.
I have to say that when I decided to view the film, I had no idea that it had become so popular that its number of views placed it in the Netflix top ten weekly rankings over the summer. Something in the film was speaking to people globally. I was surprised when I read an article in Forbes, of all places, that mentioned the number of views the film has gotten as making it “one of Netflix’s most successful movies ever” I had no idea that the film had reached so many and I wanted to delve a little deeper into what it shared with its audience and why it might be resonating with so many people.
The wedding night scene had an unusual twist. Cassie at first judges Luke for pretending to be a “tough guy” instead of admitting that he’s scared. And she also thinks he’s not telling the truth when he looks around the room upon entering, clearly surprised, and says that he asked for a room with double beds. He denies feeling fearful at first and then sits down, begins shaking, and admits that he is indeed afraid. Cassie apologizes to him and tells him his admission “brave.” She sits down next to him and places her hand on his leg with compassion. They look at each other, something passes between them, and Cassie quickly stands up, turns away and says she needs to ‘wash up’ or something like that. The next thing we know, Luke calls her name, she’s in his arms and they start kissing passionately. He then asks her if it’s okay to go further. She agrees. The characters’ arc of change begins. Two people who trigger each other in seemingly every interaction end up sharing a night of passion. Their passion is short-lived, though, as Luke’s tough guy exterior returns in the morning and Cassie realizes he is “one of those guys” who pretend “like nothing happened.”
After Luke is deployed and their email and facetime communications begin, he wholeheartedly supports Cassie’s music goals and cheers her on consistently throughout the film. This isn’t something that someone who truly doesn’t like another person does. And despite Luke’s high ideals about love, marriage, serving his country, and becoming a better man through his military service, he’s hiding a big secret about his past and a time in which he wasn’t serving anyone but himself or becoming a better person. He was lost. The viewer is let in on Luke’s secret early in the film. But when Luke presents his willingness to enter into a fake marriage with her and Cassie asks him what’s in it for him, he holds back.
There is something about this film that pulled at my attention in a way that most films don’t. And it isn’t that the film is extraordinarily shot, takes place in a stunning setting, or contains dialogue that is unusually crafted. Oceanside isn’t a stunning town and the scenes of Luke’s deployment in Iraq are not stunning either, but I’m not dissing the cinematography or the writing; I’m just saying that the settings are realistic in that they make sense for the unfolding of the film. The dialogue is at times really quite funny as it follows verbal sparring between the characters that is sharp and believable.
When I thought more about what it was that makes the film different, I was able to uncover a few themes. One theme is compassion, which emerges in the face of so many beliefs that put the characters at odds philosophically and experientially with one another. Cassie has a best friend, Franikie, who becomes a Marine, which she is not happy about. Yet, she doesn’t deny her friendship and love for Frankie, who she’s known since childhood. And she marries a man she doesn’t know and doesn’t particularly like, but whose humanity she can see and respond to when she lets her guard slip and he does the same. Luke is attracted to Cassie from the moment he lays eyes on her in the bar. And even though she rebuffs him to the enjoyment of his buddies, he continues to want to know more about her, and he tries without success to figure her out. It’s only through kindness and compassion that these two characters develop a tentative relationship with each other by learning to let go of control and to trust.
I give a lot of credit to the high caliber work of actors Sofia Carson, who plays Cassie, and Nicholas Galitzine, who plays Luke for bringing intensity and authenticity to their characters, and depth to the story. Their performances made me clearly see Luke and Cassie as two flawed yet whole individuals who were struggling internally and externally in their young lives.
I was disappointed when Frankie, who is bunkmates with Luke, lets Luke stay at his family’s home, and who grew up as a close friend of Cassie’s, is killed while on duty abroad. Chosen Jacobs, the actor who played Franikie, has a radiant smile and exudes so much warmth of personality in all of his scenes. I was ready to be his second best friend after Cassie. I did wonder however, whether the filmmakers knew about the killing off the black character trope, which is quite outdated, so much so that it is used in satire nowadays.
Frankie’s death led to two cemetery scenes, the first, his burial. The second cemetery scene didn’t seem to fit into the film very well in terms of its placement. I didn’t quite understand Luke’s conversation with dead and buried Frankie and his words “Cassie Salazar is my best friend” because I didn’t see evidence of a journey to best friend between Luke and Cassie. However, after viewing the scene a second time, I noticed that Luke’s words were said with surprise. It was as if he was having an “aha” moment as he spoke to the dead. He was becoming aware of his own growth and his connection to Cassie.
I wanted more of an arc that showed the progression from two people who got on each other’s nerves and were prone to argue at the drop of a hat to best friends. There were moments of kindness between Cassie and Luke. But I wanted more of a steady arc that led me through their growth. Although it’s understandable that both Cassie and Luke’s lives change throughout the film, it’s not clear how that happens in the day to day of cohabitation for two people who hardly know one another and exhibit such annoyance for each other from the moment they meet. We do see Luke working hard on his physical rehab once he returns to Oceanside with a serious injury. And we do see Cassie’s music gain more and more attention, which leads to her band landing more gigs in larger venues to the point that they are asked to open for Florence and the Machine at the Hollywood Bowl.
I would have liked to see more of the practicalities like having to change a third floor walk up apartment formerly inhabited by a single woman musician who early in the film tells her mom that she is bartending, delivering meals, and giving piano lessons, to a place in which a wheelchair-bound young man could live. Those would have shown concrete and practical changes in both Cassie and Luke’s lives that went way beyond their pretend marriage. I kept wondering how a wheelchair bound person with what had been described as a shattered leg could have transferred from his wheelchair to sleep on the couch, which Luke volunteered to do. And who walked Luke’s gorgeous golden retriever Peaches several times a day, when only one person could easily navigate stairs and the other person was promoting their music and performing regularly with a band?
Despite the ‘opposites trigger each other and attract one another’ formula of the romance in this film, it is about much more. What comes through quite clearly is that time, compassion, kindness, and vulnerability can erode fractious interactions. And time is probably the most important factor. These two characters chose a path that they thought had an expiration date. However, life threw them a curve that forced them to spend more time than they had ever expected with each other under dire circumstances. Time made the difference between their first meeting, pretend marriage plan, and their individual and collective journeys of growth. The passage of time is used well in the film and its depiction of acts of kindness, compassion, and growth set this film apart from other ‘opposites attract’ stories. Perhaps more filmmakers might begin to realize that audiences are ready to engage with stories with themes compassion, kindness, and growth at the forefront. Perhaps the popularity of Purple Hearts shows that many of us have been ready for compassion, kindness, and growth portrayed in film for some time.