Who needs miracles, anyway? After all, Breakthrough is coming out at a time when just about everyone not only feels like they could use a miracle right about now, but almost all of them have the means through social media to broadcast their deserved woes. Here is a film framed and wired with Judeo-Christian principles as a trojan horse of supposedly enlightened messaging less keen on evangelizing the uninitiated than it is soothing believers into further submission. This is Breakthrough, a film bent on preaching to the choir with emotional hand-wringing. It’s just a shame the sermon has only the trappings of substance or spiritual investigation.
“What does it mean to pray boldly?” Chrissy Metz asks as Joyce Smith during a women’s bible study in one of the film’s early scenes. Before her fellow believers have a chance to chime in on the film’s central theme, Topher Grace enters stage right to provide one of the film’s first true misfires: conflict disguised as holy shepherding. You see, Joyce and Pastor Jason don’t get along. He’s from California, you see, where preaching is different and haircuts are a bit too wild for Joyce’s tastes. “Christians,” the film posits, “should be more open to the winds of change.”
But church drama is only on the margins of Breakthrough, a subplot wisely inserted into the script to fill in the time and flesh out reasons for the wishful to get invested. Because the true story of Breakthrough is loosely that, a retelling of a 2015 incident involving a 14-year-old boy who drowned in an icy lake in St. Charles, Missouri and was without oxygen for 15 minutes.
John Smith (played by Marcel Ruiz) is Joyce’s adopted son from Guatemala, who in his teen years is beginning to struggle with questions about his latinx identity in a Christian middle school that suspiciously keeps the camera narrowed in on diversity brochure exceptions. To call Breakthrough a meaningful cinematic story about race or the complicated questions behind these issues and how they mesh with modern evangelicalism would be as farcical as the notion that we’re in a post-racial America, and if that sounds like 2015 to you, at least Breakthrough gets one thematic detail correct, if not incidentally.
But Breakthrough is really about a highly-religious family and community struggling to maintain their faith in God when John is on the brink of death. Science appears to have no answers or cause for hope. Nevertheless, the medical professionals are stumped when John Smith is apparently saved (early on in the movie, and not fully) by the power of his mother’s prayers, which specifically request God use the Holy Spirit to “give” her back her son.
The true details of John’s story are familiar to someone like me, who grew up in the evangelical threshold as a Puerto Rican American in a Christian middle and high school. I’ve witnessed what my community has called miracles in the form of a car accident that should have killed a classmate of mine. We prayed over her for weeks, and indeed, she survived. This is why I approach Breakthrough with both skepticism and open arms. Telling this story begs a unique opportunity to explore the value of human life and how religion can momentarily reward the faithful. A film can draw a line between this confirmation bias and an honest dive into questions surrounding the why behind what Christians believe. And how it may affect everyone else around them, for better or worse.
Breakthrough posits, however, that faith is a foregone conclusion. The onus is on everyone else to feel guilty about their need for answers when it comes to selective suffering. Why would God save him, but not my husband? Why would God save her, but not them? Rather than approach these difficult theological challenges with empathy or insight, the film writes them in as cruel torment against the survivors, then drops the question as one of life’s great mysteries before moving on to the soundtrack’s many worship songs. It’s time to worship without question, not make sure our beliefs hold up to any sort of baseline scrutiny, the film suggests.
Is it any wonder faith-based audiences found First Reformed to be too ambiguous and far removed from the spiritual catharsis they clearly craved? Breakthrough is their answer, a religious exercise in pandering disguised with the credibility of a true story. Grace, to his credit, knows how to act like a milquetoast pastor caught in an impossible situation, able to handle Metz’s often belligerent over-performance as a mother on the brink.
Off on the sides, Josh Lucas plays a forgettable role as Joyce’s distraught husband and occasional sounding board, and Mike Colter provides some of the film’s only dynamic character growth as the token atheist. This is Roxann Dawson’s first time directing a film (she played B’Elanna Torres on Star Trek: Voyager and has directed episodes of House of Cards and The Americans), and it’s clear she found more dramatic opportunity in Grant Nieporte’s script when it came to Colter’s Tommy, the first responder who got John out of the lake after hearing a “voice” from nowhere tell him not to give up. But by the end of Breakthrough, Tommy’s own “breakthrough” is relegated to the background as the film nears a staggering two hours of runtime.
Faith-based films like Breakthrough could and should have deeper ideas to offer their target audience. But rather than approach their stories with artful integrity, they’re far more frequently pieced together with the bare minimum of competent filmmaking, devoid of a vision beyond selling tickets to Christians who demand to feel good about their faith when they go to the theater. There’s something to be said about how Breakthrough is the first film from 20th Century Fox to be distributed by Disney, which recently acquired the studio and its production companies (Fox 2000 Pictures in this case). It’s said with a heavy heart that Breakthrough at least accidentally represents this major shift in the history of cinema, despite being in the works long before the ink hit the page of this all-too consequential merger. Going forward, one less studio has the opportunity to defy mainstream expectations and take the sorts of risks that birth cinematic language and inspiration. Instead, we have Breakthrough, which is anything but true to its own name.