American faith-based films love their child-in-peril narratives like no other, with the possible exception of underdog sports stories. They also love cherry-picking the ones in which the child recovers despite all medical professionals predicting otherwise, making them films more interested in encouraging the belief in miracles than a need for faith itself. In other words, American Christian-made movies tend to celebrate wish-fulfillment rather than faith in God’s plan, leaving audience members having suffered real loss with unsavory questions about why their faith wasn’t rewarded in the same way. Breakthrough almost addresses this troubling question through the filter of the central survivor, but quickly sacrifices it for easily digestible messages of inspiration and repaired relationship.
Breakthrough follows a story that is in partially ruined by the very description of the plot (and the title), involving a teenage boy falling unconscious into an icy
lake. Once recovered from the water, John (Marcel Ruiz, “One Day at a Time”)
faces slim odds of survival and his adopted parents, Joyce and Brian Smith
(Chrissy Metz and Josh Lucas), are told to prepare for the worst. As the entire
community and medical professionals begin to mourn John, however, Joyce refuses
to accept this prognosis. She believes completely that prayer will save her
son, even though Brian does not share this belief. In a way, the film seems to
suggest that it is Joyce’s unwavering faith which ultimately saves her son, and
not the doctors that she scolds for their pessimism multiple times throughout
the run-time. Missouri
The only thing that saves Joyce from being more than just a pious saint (aside from the berating of hospital staff and loved ones showing support in ways she deems ‘wrong’) is her relationship with the local church’s new pastor, Jason Noble (Topher Grace). Aside from a strangely aggressive scene in which Jason uses his power to kick Joyce out of a meeting room, she mostly just dislikes the new pastor because of his transparent attempts to remain hip and young. The greatest offense in regards to this (other than the occasional embarrassing attempt to use trendy slang and his insistence that people call him by his first name) is a moment in which he invites a rapper to participate in the worship portion of the church service. That it is the mildest and commercialized example of rap music only makes the extreme reaction by some of the congregation that much more ridiculous. The fact that the rapper is black and all of the offended members are white is another uncomfortable reality never addressed by the film. Instead the inclusion of a black actors in the cast (Mike Colter of “Luke Cage,” as the firefighter who pulled John from the lake; Dennis Haysbert as the primary doctor) is meant to placate any tension caused by the cultural associations made in this scene.
As the trailers, other advertisements, the beginning/end of the film, and the cover of the Blu-ray release make sure to inform viewers, Breakthrough is based on a true story. When films say ‘based on,’ it should always be expected that liberties are taken with the narrative (even more so when the words ‘inspired by’ are used), and this certainly seems to be the case with Breakthrough as well. This does not bother me, however, even if some of the medical elements are altered to make the recovery appear even more miraculous. What does bother me is poor screenwriting, which even talented actors struggle with throughout the run-time, not always successfully.
Obviously, this was based on a true story and I am not advocating for changes to make the narrative end unhappily, but I do question why American faith-based filmmakers feel the need to only show stories where the prayers are answered exactly. Are those whose prayers go unanswered to believe that God loves them less? The message of these films may not directly imply this, but I also think that the medium could benefit from some diversity in narratives. Wouldn’t it be redemptive for the experiences of others to see a film where faith is addressed when a prayer isn’t answered, when tragedy strikes and the young boy doesn’t survive. Interestingly enough, this exact movie has already been made and it is a masterpiece, but this is likely only because it was made by Polish filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. It is hard to imagine this film ever coming from an American faith-based filmmaker (although I acknowledge that The Shack at least tries, albeit with fantasy wish-fulfillment used to help the grief, if not save the child), at least not within the formula which has clearly been solidified with films like Breakthrough, but which were popularized by Heaven is for Real (2014) and Miracles from Heaven (2016). These films are faith-affirming to some, but this doesn’t mean that there isn’t room for more complex narratives. And regardless of the end result of the stories, they all could use with a little script doctoring where the dialogue is concerned. Lucas is the only one who is able to handle the dialogue effectively, and this is mostly because his characters talks so much less than the others.
The Blu-ray release of Breakthrough also comes with a DVD copy, as well as a digital code for streaming. The special features on the disc itself include audio commentary with producer and director. There is also a deleted scene, and a couple making-of promotional featurettes.
Entertainment Value: 5/10
Quality of Filmmaking: 5.5/10
Historical Significance: 4/10
Special Features: 6.5/10