BREAKTHROUGH: Drowning

This is an unusual movie for me to review. As a rule, I don’t see explicitly “faith-based” films. The closest I came was last year when I saw and reviewed GOSNELL, seduced by the subhead “Biggest Serial Killer” and failing to do the proper research that a.) he was not and b.) it was an anti-choice film. However, BREAKTHROUGH represents a unique case.

First, it comes from a major studio. Actually, it represents one of the final releases from Twentieth Century Fox. Second, only the producer Devon Franklin seems to come from the world of faith-based films. Writer Grant Nieporte, director Roxann Dawson, and several of the actors have careers in secular film and no particular public personas as religious figures. In other words, there are no Kirk Cameron types here. Finally, it is getting a big mainstream advertising push. The last film explicitly Christian in nature to get this kind of money behind? Probably THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST.

Thus, despite my usual aversions, BREAKTHROUGH felt like something a bit unique. Not simply a film to be lumped in with the likes of your FIREPROOFs and SAVING CHRISTMASes.

Josh Lucas, Chrissy Metz, and Marcel Ruiz say grace over their breakfast during a scene in BREAKTHROUGH. (Courtesy of Fox 2000)

The Theology of BREAKTHROUGH

I want to put this all on front street so you, as the reader, know where I am coming from. The kind of Christianity I practice does not mirror the Christianity of the movie. Truth be told, BREAKTHROUGH’s version of Christianity is one I have a lot of objections to.

I plan to review the rest of the movie as a movie in and of itself but I don’t want anyone thinking I’m hiding my biases here. The film’s emphasis on the power of intercessory prayer rankles me. The megachurch that apparently everyone in the town attends would not be a place I would attend. The idea of God having a purpose for all of us (including dying as a child, surviving while others in similar circumstances die, and so on) is one I will never cotton to.

I’m not looking to debate these points nor do I believe the rest of my review is colored by them. However, if you feel it is important for a critic to buy into this movie’s perspective on Christianity to give it a fair shake, you should know that, even as a Christian, I do not.

Marcel Ruiz (center, with ball) runs headlong towards danger, unaware, in a scene from BREAKTHROUGH (Courtesy of Fox 2000)

The World of BREAKTHROUGH

The real-life Lake St. Louis, Missouri is a town of 7 square miles populated by nearly 16,000 people at the time this movie takes place. I grew up in a town about twice as large population wise and now live in one with nearly four times as many people. So it is possible that I just don’t know what it is like living in a town of this size. All of this acknowledged, the Lake St. Louis of the movie feels small and insular.

Despite being some 7 miles — the town I grew up in is 13 square miles for context — it feels like all the action unfolds on, like, three streets and a hospital some unnamed distance away. The effect is that it casts a kind of fairy tale feel over the proceedings.

Some films this can absolutely work for. However, BREAKTHROUGH aims for the real effect of God on this child John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) — and by extension his friends and family. To make it feel unreal undermines this goal. Moreover, the story also wants to assert the widespread connections that it created with the wider world. However, beyond a Facebook page that “goes viral” there is no sense that there is a wider world, nevermind that John’s story is inspiring them.

Breakthrough: Pastor and his sheep
Chrissy Metz keeps hope alive for Marcel Ruiz while Topher Grace quietly observes. (Courtesy of Fox 2000)

The Look of BREAKTHROUGH

While the geographic space the film takes up is limited, the film has some visual panache. Dawson has a long history as a television director and this is clearly not something she fell into. While at times one can feel her struggle to push beyond her television training, mostly it seems clear that she is enjoying playing in the larger breadth and scope of the big screen. In particular, she capitalizes on the haunting motif of John sinking into water, when it is literal, a dream, or a metaphorical image.

Generally speaking, the movie is best visually when it is outside of the hospital. Filming in such a tight space handcuffs Dawson and you can see the evidence on the screen. The slowly gliding camera that characterizes the other parts of the film disappears and we find ourselves rooted to two or three set angles.

It is so set, in fact, that at one point when the movie shoots John’s room from an upper angle from the room next door you realize you had no idea the geography of the place. It pulls focus, unfortunately, from what is actually a nicely composed shot of Doctor Garrett (Dennis Haysbert), alone and silent as he struggles to wrap his mind around John’s seemingly impossible recovery. Meanwhile, in the background, friends and family stream into the room to celebrate.

The Performances of BREAKTHROUGH

Only Chrissy Metz — who plays John’s mother, Joyce — has discussed her faith in-depth in the promotion of this movie. Thus I cannot speak to how many of the players are just here because it is a job and how many are doing this as a work of faith — or both, for that matter. However, I can say no one is slumming it here.

I called it a “weeper” in the headline, and goodness did I mean it. Everyone on-screen has come for your tears and, oh boy, are they ready to extract them from your eyes. I found Josh Lucas as Brian’s dad and Topher Grace as the new hip pastor Jason particularly strong. Lucas in particular has a hard road to walk as a dad whose wife’s faith eclipses his own. Therefore, he must contend with both his grief over his son’s seeming impending demise and his guilt over not having his wife’s unfaltering conviction.

Metz has the lead role and is actually a pretty thorny protagonist. Her work to give Joyce depth often gets cut off at the knees by the script, though, which keeps “rewarding” her problematic behaviors with improvements in her son’s health.

Breakthrough: Shine
Mike Colter digs deep in the ice to search for the drowning boy in BREAKTHROUGH. (Courtesy of Fox 2000)

Thorny Topics Too Easily Tossed

Speaking of the script undermining things, this comes up a few times in BREAKTHROUGH. The movie frequently raises intriguing, difficult to wrestle with questions and then resolves them in the most facile ways possible.

For instance, Tommy Shine (Mike Colter), an atheist fireman who retrieves John’s body some 45-plus minutes after he went under the ice, has to wrestle with the possibility that he heard the voice of God guiding him in the search for John. To experience what you perceive as evidence of God’s hand in your life is disorienting for someone of faith, nevermind for an atheist. We see him lightly wrestle with it some, but then, a half-hour later, he seems to have come to terms with this tremendous change in his outlook on the natural and supernatural world.

Similarly, the film gives John a sort of survivor’s guilt writ large. How does he get to live when his teacher’s husband died in his sleep of an aneurysm? What about a classmate’s mom who is horribly sick? Is John more worthy of life than that woman? These are big questions, theological or otherwise, and the movie ultimately just bunts on them with a shrugged, “I don’t know.” Ruiz’s best on-screen work happens during the brief time he is grappling with the reality of being a miracle — by science or religion’s standards, he qualifies. That makes the movie’s decision to move past it in a hurry doubly disappointing.

Lastly, there is a suggestion of racism in the congregation that stems from several members’ visible reaction to a hip-hop artist being used in the middle of their Christian rock back during worship. It is so visually blatant that it seems bizarre it never gets aired out beyond that moment.

A Word About Stephen Curry’s Involvement

So, Steph Curry is one of the executive producers of this movie. Which is cool. It is nice to see athletes diversify.

However, Brian and John have a father son talk about basketball early in the movie where Curry is specifically called out. Moreover, the characters specifically reference his excellence. Curry certainly is an incredible basketball player, but it is weird to have your own movie call it out like that.

Worse, the film whiffs on making it a theme. Later in the movie, there is a scene that hinges on John’s seeming ability to answer questions about basketball by squeezing his mom’s hand for one answer, his pastor’s hand for another. So obviously they utilize Curry — and Durant, the player John expects Curry to triumph over — as the options, right? Nope. Michael Jordan and Lebron James. Again, awesome players and certainly fine debate choices, but it is a total failure of Chekhov’s advocacy for Curry. It makes that early scene seem even more egregious.

BREAKTHROUGH: Dr. Garret and the parents
Dennis Haysbert gives it honest to Josh Lucas and Chissy Metz in a scene from BREAKTHROUGH. (Courtesy of Fox 2000)

That’s a Wrap

As noted above, BREAKTHROUGH had the air of a different sort of faith-based film. To a certain extent, that proves true. Better directed and better acted than other examples of the genre I have taken in, it earns a closer look. However, in other ways it is very similar, including its overwhelmingly Evangelical “God has favorites” bend. What really hurts BREAKTHROUGH for me as a work of film, though, is its repeated handwaving at truly complex issues. They could have added depth and intensity to the overall experience. A faith that cannot stand up to strong exploration does not feel like much faith at all. I wish this movie did not go for easy answers rather than have its characters really dig into their doubts and fears.

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