You need to have a bit of a cold heart not to be touched by Breakthrough. Like Miracles from Heaven, this faith-based film is inspired by a true story that would be impossible to believe if it didn't have roots in reality. Even if imperfect, which this movie certainly is, there's something about these tales that's difficult to resist. They remind us that miracles do happen.
Chrissy Metz plays Joyce Smith, a devout Christian who lives right outside St. Louis with her husband Brian (Josh Lucas) and their 14-year-old son John (Marcel Ruiz). Joyce's life is pretty happy. Her biggest problem is that she doesn't like her church's new pastor, Jason (Topher Grace), because he's trying too hard to make his services hip.
Tragedy strikes when John and his buddies are playing on a frozen lake. The ice breaks, sending all three boys plunging into the water. The other two escape. John sinks and has to be rescued by local emergency personnel. He's underwater for more than 15 minutes before one of those workers, Tommy Shine (Mike Coulter), pulls him out. Efforts to resuscitate him at the hospital fail. But then Joyce prays over his body, asking God to spare her son. Suddenly John develops a pulse. Thus begins an intense effort to save his life, guided by the compassionate Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert) and, of course, Joyce's ongoing prayer.
I'm a sucker for movies like Breakthrough. True tales of miracles provide a sense of optimism in a world that can occasionally seem dark and scary. This one is a real mind-blower. Director Roxann Dawson and writer Grant Nieporte make it clear how much danger John is in the entire time. His brain activity slows, his organs fail, he can't breathe on his own. By making the stakes clear, the moments in which he shows improvement pack an emotional punch that leaves you choked up.
There are some interesting angles within the story. Joyce remains adamant that God can and will save John, but Brian and Jason think she's merely in denial. Spending some time on that dynamic gives Breakthrough more edge than many faith-based films, where everyone is unfailingly devout from start to finish. On a similar note, Tommy – an atheist – grapples with having heard a voice that guided him toward John when he was submerged.
As is par for the course with Christian-themed movies, Breakthrough has intermittent scenes that are a little melodramatic or a little corny. A sequence in which townspeople gather outside the hospital to sing a perfectly-rehearsed song is one example. So is a bit near the end with John's teacher ruminating on loss. The finale, meanwhile, relies on a character addressing a crowd with a microphone, explicitly spelling out everything the film has already said.
Chrissy Metz (from TV's This Is Us) is the glue that holds the picture together when it gets wobbly. Her performance is sincere, credible, and sympathetic. A character like Joyce could have seemed too over-the-top in the wrong hands. Metz makes sure to capture her faith while still making her vulnerable.
Obviously, Breakthrough has an incredibly happy ending. They wouldn't have made the movie otherwise. That ending is gratifying. We all need to feel uplifted once in a while and to remember what a powerful tool hope is. You leave this film with those thoughts on your mind, as well as a warm feeling in your heart.
out of four
Breakthrough is rated PG for thematic content including peril. The running time is 1 hour and 56 minutes.