MOVIE REVIEW: “Breakthrough”

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(Image by Allen Fraser for 20th Century Fox via



The new film Breakthrough exists with the challenge of putting a miracle into words and performance. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lays that heavy m-word out two ways.

Too often nowadays in our headline-seeking and attention-starved society, that first definition of “miracle” is stretched and overused to the point of hyperbole, right there next to other words like “epic” and “masterpiece.” There are places where effectiveness has been lost. That second definition is a doozy. It calls for higher piety. Well, good believers love divine challenges and so does this movie.

This Is Us star Chrissy Metz headlines Breakthrough as the matriarch Joyce Smith. Alongside her steady husband Brian (the equally steady himself Josh Lucas), Joyce has worriedly and mindfully raised her adopted teenage son John (newcomer Marcel Ruiz) from Guatemala. He is an Americanized basketball lover who is hitting that social-centered and non-affectionate stage at breakneck speed. On a January Missouri day in 2015, John and two other friends fell through ice into a frigid lake.

LESSON #1: MAKE SAFE CHOICES — Kids, thin ice is dangerous and the waters underneath are even worse. Avoid such unmeasured risks to also avoid the list of potential bad results that include everything from falling injuries on up to death by hypothermia or drowning. Find different places to play.

John was submerged for 15 minutes before being rescued as a drowning. For nearly 45 minutes after that, he was treated with CPR at the scene, on the ambulance, and the emergency room where several attempts of defibrillation followed. It was not until the wailing prayers of his mother that John Smith would regain a heartbeat. Transported by helicopter to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital in St. Louis, every diagnosis and researched data point for days from the trauma team led by Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert) said John wouldn’t survive nor regain his normal functions. Less than three weeks after the accident, he walked out of that building on his own power.

LESSON #2: THE EXAMPLE OF A “MIRACLE” — Examine the logistics of hypoxia and brain damage from that last paragraph one more time. If an unfathomable story like that is not “extremely outstanding or unusual,” then the dictionary is broken because John Smith’s recovery qualifies as a medical miracle. Next, the respective ease or challenge of going two steps further to “extraordinary” and “manifesting divine intervention” lies with the Breakthrough viewers and their willing levels of belief.

LESSON #3: “YOU HAVE A PURPOSE AND YOU ARE LOVED” — No matter where your notions of faith reside, there are some stories that astonish anyone with their emotionality and wonder. The John Smith story counts as one of those and this quote from the film hammers home the value of a life saved and a life continued. It is matched by an included external quote from former President Lyndon Johnson that states “Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose.” You don’t need a cross around your neck to have or believe in those levels of respect for the specialness of the human condition.

Directed by TV actress Roxann Dawson (Star Trek: Voyager) in her feature debut in that chair and bankrolled by Heaven is for Real minister/producer DeVon Franklin (with a little endorsing executive sprinkle from NBA star Steph Curry), Breakthrough has its fair amount of manipulative measures to frame the Smith family’s situation for movie-going appeal. This is heavily tissue-inducing weeper for the thoughts-and-prayers crowd, nailing that objective with enough production value and play on symbolism to be better than most of its peers in that discipline. Still, the tropes of teen difficulties, silly generational differences, and twinkling religious displays build an overly showy melodrama at times. The true story is enough where the embellishments could have been less in places.

Through all the raised, held, and laid hands involved, the strongest grip of the film belongs to Chrissy Metz. She rides and survives a character put through a tumultuous parental wringer of fears showing power and principle. It’s wonderful to see Metz with a healthy lead role that really suits her strengths. Adding to a soundtrack of praise and worship, Chrissy Metz even sings the closing credits song to add to her positive display of talent.

Behind her, Breakthrough brings forth characters representing the community of support that saw the Smiths through this trying time. Leading that ensemble are Topher Grace and Mike Colter. The recent BlacKkKlansman villain plays Pastor Jason Noble, the new younger and hipper leader of the Smith’s church. Grace comports himself well to squeeze his charm to the max in a different direction from his usual snark, becoming a second heart-and-soul to the movie. Trade charm for strength, equal the heart, and echo the complement for Colter as first-responder Tommy Shine.

LESSON #4: SURRENDER CONTROL — Nearly every step of this inspiring ordeal features moments matching the need of letting other people and powers take over your efforts. Churchgoers stuck on colloquial and antiquated traditions must give way to new ones that exhibit improved purpose towards the same goals. You have a mother adamantly demanding only positive words be used in her or her son’s presence that speak life above the truthful possibilities of loss and inevitabilities for things that “can only go so far.” You have a pushy pastor that answers the dismissive “It’s not a good time” with a “that’s why I’m here.” You have a survivor who feels a burden of perceived luck. Hovering over all of these struggles as an outlet or answer to making this lesson happen is the power of prayer. Many people, on-screen and off, put their trust into a higher power and received the guidance, answers, will, and even the miracles they sought.

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