'Breakthrough': Film Review

Even non-believers may be moved by this faith-based story.
4/17/2019

Veteran actors Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace and Dennis Haysbert help recount the true story of a boy who survived a near-fatal drowning.

In the mini-genre of Christian, faith-based films, Breakthrough must be credited as one of the most effective additions to the roster. Admittedly there is not a high bar to meet, but this inspirational story directed by Roxann Dawson benefits from strong performances and a minimum of treacly preaching. Basketball superstar Stephen Curry acted as one of the executive producers. Box office should be solid.

The film recounts a provocative true story. In 2015, a 14-year-old boy and two friends ventured onto thin ice on a frozen Missouri lake. They crashed through, and one of the boys, John Smith (Marcel Ruiz), sank to the bottom. He was rescued by firemen after 15 minutes, and although he showed no pulse, he was rushed to a nearby hospital. Doctors could get no response, but when his mother appeared and prayed over his body, he began to show flickers of life. He received the most sophisticated medical care and eventually recovered without neurological impairment. 

The entire community celebrated a miracle, and indeed it was, but a bit of scientific research suggests that there might have been another explanation for his recovery: The fact that his body was encased in freezing water could have delayed what might have happened in the case of a drowning in warmer water. The film doesn’t raise that point, choosing instead to celebrate the mother’s faith and the prayers of the entire community.

Whether or not you believe in the power of prayer to raise the dead, Breakthrough is smoothly dramatized. In part this is because the movie doesn’t neglect the contributions of a team of dedicated doctors; it is respectful of science and medicine. Although the scenes of community members and fellow students praying and singing their hearts out do verge on the mawkish, there are enough astringent moments to keep skeptics engaged. John’s mother, Joyce (Chrissy Metz, one of the stars of NBC's This Is Us), is a rock of devotion, while his father (Josh Lucas) is believably shaken by the whole ordeal, at times unable to confront his son’s comatose state. In addition, the fireman who recovered John’s body at first resists a spiritual explanation for the boy’s survival, though he cannot explain a voice that urged him to dive for the body.

There are also some intriguing doubts that linger after his recovery. A teacher and a fellow classmate raise questions about why prayers did not help them to rouse sick or dying family members; this note of skepticism might have been pushed further in a more intellectually rigorous film, but the fact that it is included at all is a credit to the thoughtful screenplay by Grant Nieporte, who wrote the more sappy Seven Pounds. Dawson’s delicate direction keeps the pic from pounding audiences with religiosity. The locales are strikingly photographed (by cinematographer Zoran Popovic), though the movie was actually shot in Winnipeg.

Producer DeVon Franklin has cast the film shrewdly, with an eye to inclusivity. In the real story, the fireman who rescued John was white, but Franklin has cast African-American actor Mike Colter, and he gives a restrained yet soulful performance. Dennis Haysbert is superb as the chief medical expert overseeing John’s treatment. John himself is well played by Hispanic actor Ruiz. John was adopted from Guatemala, and in one scene Joyce explains that she had given her own baby up for adoption many years earlier, though the script might have filled in more background on this decision and the changes in her life that it produced.

Both Metz and Lucas are solid enough, but their fairly stock characters do not emerge quite as vividly as they might have. On the other hand, Topher Grace is extremely engaging as the hip, rap music-loving pastor who initially rubs Joyce the wrong way but eventually wins her over in a plot development that is not exactly brimming with surprise.

A note of predictability is the film’s most obvious flaw and probably the underlying weakness of most faith-based movies. Despite the touches of obviousness, Breakthrough is skillful enough to stir strong emotion in both devout and skeptical audiences.

Production company: Franklin Entertainment
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Cast: Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace, Marcel Ruiz, Mike Colter, Sam Trammell, Dennis Haysbert
Director: Roxann Dawson
Screenwriter: Grant Nieporte, based on the book by Joyce Smith
Producer: DeVon Franklin
Executive producers: Stephen Curry, Becki Cross Trujillo, Samuel Rodriguez
Director of photography: Zoran Popovic
Production designer: Gae Buckley
Editor: Maysie Hoy
Music: Marcelo Zarvos

Rated PG, 116 minutes