As with all review-caps, MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD. You’ve been warned.
I don’t know how many of you out there remember how television worked back in the 70’s and 80’s – you know, way, way back before streaming and even DVRs. You used to have to memorize the TV schedule. You used to have to sit through commercial breaks. And before the advent of the VCR, you could only watch shows or MOWs live, and only once. No repeats until summer and the end of the TV season.
What’s a “MOW,” you ask? Anymore, the closest thing I can compare the MOW (Movie of the Week) to now would be those specially-made flicks for Lifetime and Hallmark networks. You know, those formulaic, predictable but oh-so-feel-good flicks that you can’t help watching. Yeah, but what does any of that have to do with Breakthrough, you ask? Well, a lot, actually – because that’s basically what Breakthrough is – a MOW with a much bigger budget and a top-tier cast (which is what lured me in).
For those unfamiliar with the true events the flick’s based on, Breakthrough tells the story of Joyce Smith and her adopted son, John. In the winter of 2015 in Missouri, John (then 14) and a couple of his friends fell through the ice on a frozen lake – and while his two friends managed to get back to the surface, John was not so lucky. He stayed underwater for 15 minutes before first responders rescued him – and by the time Joyce got to the hospital, the medical team had been doing CPR for 45 minutes without a pulse.
The doctor was ready to call his death – but miraculously, right after Joyce prayed over John, his heart started beating again. And even though the odds against a complete recovery were almost insurmountable, John walked out of the hospital three weeks later with no neurological damage. That’s the true story, and it is an amazing, wonderful thing – but turning it into a movie requires a lot more detail and shall we say, embellishment.
Meet the Smiths – we have Mama Joyce (This Is Us’ Chrissy Metz, in her feature debut), her son John (Marcel Ruiz) and husband Brian (Josh Lucas). They’re a typical family with typical problems – namely that John is 14. He’s a teenager, and a brat. He loves basketball more than anything and seems to think just being a star player is his golden ticket through life. He treats his parents (especially Joyce) with a disdain that goes above and beyond the typical teenage ‘I-hate-my-parents’ thing.
At school, even though he is liked and has friends, John wears a chip on his shoulder about the size of a house. He refuses to do an assignment about his family history and gets an F from the teacher – which of course, affects his ability to play ball. When John finally does eke out the report, it’s clear he still has a lot of pent-up anger about his biological parents not wanting to keep him. His bad attitude and desire to steal all the attention away from the rest of his team gets him into a fight and nearly benched. All of this frustrates and hurts Joyce, who keeps trying to talk to John and get through to him with her love and support, but to no avail.
On top of all the trouble with John, Joyce has to work with a new pastor at her church, Jason Noble (Topher Grace). He’s young and kinda snot-nosed, has weird hair and runs Sunday worship more like a talk show or a major concert tour. The new band’s rapper (Lecrae) strikes an especially sour note with Joyce, who has trouble adjusting to the modern sound of Christian rock. And when Jason uses The Bachelor as a jumping off point for the sermon, she doesn’t approve. To say Pastor Jason and Joyce don’t get along is putting it mildly – and amazingly, their relationship is the most refreshing writing and character work in the whole flick.
John then goes on a weekend trip with his friends to Lake Sainte Louise – where, despite the warnings of a nearby business owner, he and his two friends start messing around on the thin ice. It cracks and they all fall through – while his friends manage to swim up to the surface, John sinks – and it’s not really made very clear here if he was too weak and cold to swim or if he just kind of gave up.
Cut to the first responders rushing to the scene, including firefighter Tommy Shine (Luke Cage’s Mike Colter). He and his partner jump in to the water and start feeling around with poles to find John – and just as they’re about to give up, Tommy hears what he thinks is the voice of his station chief (Chuck Shamata) telling him to “Go back.” He does, and voilà, he finds John and pulls him up.
At this point, John’s been under for at least 15 minutes. He’s rushed to the nearest hospital, where Doctor Sutterer (Sam Trammell) and his team work ceaselessly to revive him, continuing CPR all the way until Joyce arrives at the hospital. He pronounces John dead and leaves the room to give Joyce time with John. Everybody listens, heartbroken, as Joyce grieves and makes an impassioned prayer to bring her son back – at which point, John’s pulse suddenly picks up again. A stunned Dr. Sutterer has John immediately airlifted to St. Louis where he can be cared for by a specialist in drowning cases.
Joyce and husband Brian get to the hospital, but then Brian tells Joyce he can’t stay in the room with John. Seeing him hooked up to all the machines, looking so fragile, just hurts too much. So Joyce keeps the bedside vigil – and then Pastor Jason shows up to offer his help, to which Joyce responds with a “Thanks for coming” that sounds way more like – well, you know (and Chrissy Metz delivers the line with so much snark I busted up laughing). But Pastor Jason says he’s not going anywhere and that despite their rocky start, he’s there for her and her family.
John then gets evaluated by the specialist, Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert – dude, where have you been? I miss you! Those Allstate commercials aren’t cutting it for me. Talk to your agent, okay? Please!) He’s stunned by John’s ability to hold on but makes it clear to Joyce and Brian that he doesn’t expect John to survive the night. Joyce responds with total denial, saying the Doc just needs to be the best doctor he can possibly be for John and then “stand back and let God do the rest.” Ooh. Ouch. One of several points where the “faith-based” dialogue stops an otherwise smoothly-rolling story dead in its tracks.
The other major problem the flick has is its pacing, which is most evident from this point on in the story. The entire flick only covers 72 hours, but it’s such a slog through this middle part, where there’s not much for any of the characters to do but sit around and wait and talk about stuff. Of course there are important story beats happening, like Joyce not taking care of herself and ending up hospitalized after slipping into a diabetic coma – and another where Brian (in Josh Lucas’ only real place to shine) takes Joyce to task over her talking down to the doctors, staff and well, pretty much everybody who shows up to support them – and another point where John begins to show some signs of coming around, answering questions from Joyce and Pastor Jason by squeezing their hands. But the space in between these beats drags out endlessly, making it seem like weeks are going by instead of hours.
Finally, we get to the crisis point in the story where the medications Dr. Garrett uses on John start to do more harm than good. Joyce and Brian make the decision to take John off the ventilator and all the meds and just “let him fight.” John has a seizure and it scares everyone (even though Dr. Garrett tells them ahead of time it’s going to happen). So they have Pastor Jason make a plea to the public via the local news for prayers – and then of course, there’s the obligatory montage of every single character praying. There’s also a full-on musical number of all the friends and family holding a candlelight vigil and singing a hymn outside the hospital (but badly lip-synched – would’ve been much better done live).
And then Joyce goes up to the roof of the hospital to do one of those Shakespearean-soliloquy-type prayer monologues, which just kind of makes you roll your eyes if not outright groan – and then of course, her prayer is immediately answered with a lovely, light flurry of snow. Aww. You can pretty much guess how it goes from there. John responds to the healing power of all that prayer and wakes up, in miraculously good condition. Cut to three weeks later and he walks out a healthy, happy kid with a major attitude adjustment to go along with his clean bill of health.
Then there’s the feel-good wrap-up of everybody showing up at their church the next Sunday. The Smiths say their collective thank-you’s to everyone, and Pastor Jason recognizes everyone for their contribution to saving John, whether it was the first responders or just anyone who said a prayer. Applause and tears and hugs abound.
And then there’s the obligatory testimony of the non-believer characters like Mike Colter’s Tommy, who swears he heard a voice telling him where to find John. He has to start opening his mind up to the possibility of God when he realizes it wasn’t the voice of any of the guys he was there with. And the doctors, who make note of the incredible circumstances and how John’s case wasn’t like anything they had ever seen or even heard of. We finish up with the rundown on how the Smiths are doing now, more inspirational feel-good music plays, and we roll the credits.
Breakthrough is my first time seeing a “faith-based” flick in the theater. I’m not a particularly religious person (even though I was raised Catholic), so I’m not about to pay to be preached at for 90 minutes. But one thing I’ll say about Breakthrough is that apart from some cringe-worthy dialogue and tear-inducing scenes that felt a tad manipulative, the flick doesn’t bludgeon you with the Bible or make you feel less-than for not being religious. There’s actually some very good character work with the central roles, showing that even though they’re devout people, they’re not perfect – in fact, they’re refreshingly flawed. So there’s some good writing going on in the story, which is amplified by excellent casting choices and Roxann Dawson’s solid direction. So while it is a shame that the flick doesn’t fire on all cylinders, I would say that Breakthrough definitely shows the faith-based genre starting to come into its own.
Directed by: Roxann Dawson
Written by: Grant Nieporte (screenplay), Joyce Smith (book)
Release Date: April 17, 2019
Run Time: 1hr 56 min
Distributor: Fox 2000 Pictures/20th Century Fox