Producer: DeVon Franklin
Director: Roxann Dawson
Writer: Grant Nieporte
Stars: Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace, Marcel Ruiz, Dennis Haysbert, Sam Trammell, Rebecc Staab, Mike Colter, Ali Skovbye, Victor Zinck, Jr. and Lisa Disrupt
Studio: 20th Century Fox
There are so many emotional breakthroughs in “Breakthrough” that you could exhaust yourself just counting them, but the one that sets the story, based on a real 2015 incident, in motion is of a purely physical nature: John Smith (Marcel Ruiz), the adoptive teen son of Joyce and Brian (Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas), a deeply religious Missouri couple, falls through the ice of a frozen lake and spends a quarter-hour in the water before being pulled out. He’s pronounced dead in the hospital after attempts to revive him fail, but when Joyce prays over him, the boy comes back to life, though whether doctors in St. Louis, where he’s transferred, will be able to save him seems doubtful.
Since this is clearly a “faith-based” film. the outcome is, shall we say, predestined; its producer previously made the 2016 movie “Miracles from Heaven,” and this one offers a similar divine explanation for John’s recovery, although it adds a small measure of complexity at the close by raising the question of why God saves some but not others, though it doesn’t consider whether that suggests a capricious deity.
Those kinds of questions, though, are secondary to the various breakthroughs the script offers on the way to the finale. For example, the support shown during the family’s ordeal by the new, “hip” pastor of the Water of Life Church the Smiths attend—his name is Jason Noble and he’s played by “That 70s Show” alumnus Topher Grace (the names of both character and actor are uncannily on target)—leads Joyce finally to abandon her hostility to his manner and methods, and the two become friends. It’s just one respect in which she moves away from a prideful faith to a humble one. The ordeal also leads to a breakthrough between mother and son, who had been going through a rough patch (the tight-lipped turmoil felt by an adopted adolescent, you know), and between Joyce and Brian, who feels that his wife is sometimes too rigid in her attitudes.
Then there’s the effect of the event on Tommy Shine (Sam Trammell), the fireman who pulls John from the water. He says quite directly that he doesn’t believe in God, and yet how else can he explain the voice he heard saying “Go back,” just as he was about to abandon the attempt to find the kid beneath the murky water? Similar is the reaction of renowned Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert), who can’t explain his patient’s swift recovery as anything but miraculous? Other characters experience awakenings and major shifts of attitude as the narrative progresses as well.
One breakthrough that “Breakthrough” does not achieve, however, is the one that would move it beyond preaching-to-the-choir status.
In some respects it’s a distinct improvement over most “faith-based” movies. Some of the actors, for one thing, bring subtlety to their turns. True, Metz comes on very strong—perhaps she was unable to escape the tendency to overdo the drama that comes with starring in a TV program like “This Is Us”—but Grace, Lucas and Haysbert offer more nuanced turns. The supporting cast is variable, some barely avoiding the thin ice of amateurishness, and Roxann Dawson’s direction is too often labored, but Zoran Popovic’s widescreen cinematography is overall pretty handsome.
Sincere but heavy-handed, “Breakthrough” can serve as a sort of cinematic Easter sermon for believers, but its combination of heavy religious messaging and Hallmark Hall of Fame style will probably turn off audiences of a more secular bent.