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Breakthrough (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 1, 2020



Starring Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace, Marcel Ruiz, Dennis Haysbert, Sam Trammell, Mike Colter, Rebecca Staab, Ali Skovbye, Victor Zinck Jr., Lisa Disrupt, Nancy Sorel, Isaac Kragten, Stephanie Czajkowski, Chuck Shamata, Kristen Harris, Maddy Martin, Nikolas Dukic, Taylor Mosby, Stephanie Sy, Callie Lane, Logan Creran and Kate Yacula.

Screenplay by Grant Nieporte.

Directed by Roxann Dawson.

Distributed by Fox 2000 Pictures. 116 minutes. Rated PG.

The problem with religious films is that you take from them what you brought in. If you are already a believer, you’ll find the film an affirmation of God’s greatness. If you are not so devout, you may feel manipulated, or even preached to.

Take Breakthrough, the “based on a true story” tale of John Smith (yes, that really is apparently the guy’s name, not just an every-man type of moniker), a teenage boy who fell through the ice in a frozen lake. He was underwater in the freezing cold for about 15 minutes and should have never survived. The overwhelming odds are that if he did live, he would be badly brain damaged. Yet, after an almost week-long coma he bucked the great, great odds and made a full recovery.

Religious viewers will undoubtedly take that as a miracle; his mother’s prayers, the community’s love and a viral “Pray for John” Facebook page saved the boy’s life. More fact-based viewers will probably feel that it was the hard work of the EMTs, doctors and nurses and the child’s own strong constitution that allowed him to live. More cynical sorts will think it is all a coincidence, an act of chance that this boy was able to return to normal when most others in his position would have died. In fact, assuming this boy survived due to his mother’s strong faith could be taken as a bit insulting to all the other people who did not make it through a similar situation, who may or may not also have had strong faith.

Any of those possibilities may be right, and they all may be wrong.

Some people may say God wanted John to live so he brought him back from the abyss. Others might say that if God really wanted John to live, he would not have let him be so reckless or stupid to blithely ignore – and even mock – the guy who was warning him and his friends moments before the accident that the ice was not safe, and they should get off of it immediately.

Again, both sides may be right and both sides may be wrong. Everyone will have their opinions. No one will ever know.

The problem with Breakthrough is that it goes under the surety that its viewpoint is the correct – and only – one. God has saved the day. The boy is brought back to life by his mother’s faith and the love of the community. People who feel any doubt are shunned and berated. Even the shell-shocked doctors and the atheist EMT tech who saved him are forced to acknowledge that they have seen a true miracle.

If the audience doesn’t see it from that angle, they are in for some hard time sitting through the sanctimonious parts of Breakthrough.

This dichotomy is best embodied in the lead character, the mother of the young boy, Joyce Smith – played by Chrissy Metz of This is Us. (John can’t really be the lead since he’s in a coma for more than half of the film.)

Some people will look at her and see a woman of strong faith, a charitable woman, active in her church and a tirelessly devoted mother. (A “tiger mama,” as one character calls her.)

Other people will see a stubborn, humorless and judgmental woman. The kind of woman who scolds “Language!” when her son says the word “hell.” The kind of woman who thinks she knows better than the doctors who are caring for her son and berates them for not sharing her strong faith. The kind of woman who pushes away friends and even her husband because of her absolute need for control. The kind of woman who even dislikes her own pastor because he has spiky hair, tries to relate to the kids and used to be pastor in a church in – of all God-forsaken places – California!

At one point she even yelled at her husband, “I am the only reason that John is alive!” Yeah, okay.

Honestly, I was squarely in the second camp. Joyce Smith was one of the more actively unlikable lead characters I have seen in quite some time. Every time she said to God in prayer “I know you love me,” I could not help but wonder why. Joyce was just a few “isn’t that special”s and “Satan!”s removed from Dana Carvey’s old Saturday Night Live character the Church Lady. At least the Church Lady was amusing.

The fact that the lead character was so off-putting, so insufferable, made it hard to appreciate any of the truly gripping aspects of the film. There is even a short, inscrutable sidetrack towards the end when John is being mocked at school for being a living miracle, which is sort of the epitome of evangelical victimhood.

Look, there is a place in film for religious fare – even if it tends to be rather preachy and pedantic. There is an audience for films like this and they will undoubtedly be moved by it.

However, Breakthrough will not change the mind of anyone who is not already a convert. Most of them will feel like they were forced to sit through a two-hour long sermon.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2019 All rights reserved. Posted: July 16, 2019.

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