Directed by Roxann Dawson
Starring Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace
It always feels like a tricky proposition to review a film like Breakthrough, the based-on-a-true-story account of a Missouri mother named Joyce Smith (Chrissy Metz of This Is Us) who practically prays her 14-year-old son adopted John (Marcel Ruiz) back to life after he crashes through the frozen ice of a lake, suffers a lack of oxygen to his brain for 22 minutes, and lies clinically dead in an emergency room for 45 minutes. Arriving at the scene after hearing the terrible news, Joyce screams at the Holy Spirit to bring life back into her son. Sure enough, his pulse abruptly returns, which is all the impetus this devout Christian woman needs to buck the conventional medical wisdom at every turn, snarling at hospital staff, well-meaning visitors, and even her husband Brian (Josh Lucas) for acknowledging the reality of John’s grim prognosis. As one character notes, Joyce is a “fierce mama bear”, never wavering from her faith that God will not only save her son, but restore him back to his full adolescent, basketball-playing self.
Just as Joyce’s faith is impervious to doubt and nay-saying, movies like Breakthrough seem designed to be immune from critical analysis. Pesky matters like characterization or directorial technique or technical proficiency are all beside the point when it comes to faith—what matters is the miracle, not how you get to it. And yet you will have to get through these matters if you want the miracle to actually matter.
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The script and direction are generic at best, and so the emotional weight of the movie rests on Chrissy Metz’s shoulders, an accessible actress—her obesity is a major plot driver in This Is Us—whose charisma lies in her ordinariness. Metz can't help but invest Joyce with contrary colors. She feels helpless because she is an unwilling combatant in a burgeoning cold war with her son, who is becoming increasingly remote as adolescence and his adopted status sink in. She has a testy relationship with her pastor (Topher Grace) because she can’t stand his Southern California haircut, ingratiating usage of millennial terms like “lit”, and propensity for injecting hip hop into his services. In Metz’s hands, even Joyce’s unswerving belief—her rapturous eyes as she tells God that she “surrenders”—is a sign of life.
Still, it is that unshakeable faith that saps Breakthrough of any real drama. My Jesuit educators have always prescribed to the notion that doubt is a vital part of faith—it is what gives faith its essential, hard-won quality. But that is not what the makers of Breakthrough believe: Once Joyce embarks on her hardcore faith bender, there is never any doubt as to how this story will turn out. And when the mandated miracle arrives, all character shading and early plot strands are obliterated. Everything is forgiven, everything is forgotten. There is a token effort to contextualize the miracle, when a high-school teacher asks “Why are some saved and others are not?” To which the film responds with a shrug. As Breakthrough dishearteningly illustrates, the price of the Hollywoodization of faith is real conflict.