Directed by: Roxann Dawson
Written by: Grant Nieporte
Starring: Chrissy Metz, Topher Grace and Josh Lucas
Classification: PG; 116 minutes
First things first: The much-publicized claim that Breakthrough, a new Christian drama executive-produced by NBA all-star Steph Curry, is “based on a true story” demands some investigation.
The film tells the story of John Smith (played here by Marcel Ruiz), a Missouri teen who, while goofing off with some friends in January, 2015, fell through ice and into a freezing lake, where he languished for 15 minutes before being hauled out by rescue crews. This much is verifiably true, and was reported in the newspapers at the time. Left without a pulse for 45 minutes, doctors were prepared to declare John dead. Also true. Then his mother, Joyce (This Is Us star Chrissy Metz), petitioned God to bring her son back to life. Not long after, John’s heart began beating and, within days, he jolted out of a coma, his brain functioning normally despite the more despairing predictions from doctors and specialists.
The event was widely described in the press as a “miracle.” But can it be reasonably claimed, as Breakthrough does, that Joyce’s prayers resulted in her son’s convalescence? Of course not. Such a conclusion leans on a critical logical fallacy: post hoc ergo propter hoc or, “after this, therefore because of this.” It also relies on something just as logically fallacious, yet also extremely alluring: the “leap of faith.”
In Breakthrough, God (or at least a non-denominational, Americanized Christian idea of God) is everywhere. Young John, a Guatemalan orphan adopted by his parents during a missionary escapade, wakes up, buttons up his Christian school uniform shirt, and heads down to breakfast, where he joins hands with his mother and father (Josh Lucas) to bless a breakfast of scrambled eggs. His mother drives him to school, then rolls on to Bible study, where she butts heads with a hip, young pastor (Topher Grace, making his own drastic leap from his last major role, as KKK leader David Duke in Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman), who sullies the seriousness of ministry with his skinny jeans and Christian hip hop. When characters aren’t praying, they’re reading the Bible, or talking about God. And even those who don’t believe, such as a first responder who rescues John from the frozen lake, eventually come around. Christianity is not merely a thing people happen to practise in Breakthrough. It is a life-support machine propping up a whole community.
The result is a friction-less quality that bogs Breakthrough down. Because this is so obviously an entry in the profitable cinematic subgenre of “faith-based” Christian films, there’s never any real doubt that Joyce’s insistence on God’s intervention will fall flat. Hollywood doesn’t tend to greenlight films about people who pray for an ailing loved one’s recovery, only to see those prayers unfulfilled. And Christian Hollywood? Forget about it; even when the film does raise certain intriguing questions – such as, why would God choose to save John and not others in the community? Or why, if He indeed exists, would God even let the kid fall through the ice in the first place? – they are quickly brushed aside, so that everyone involved can learn an important lesson about the power of prayer.
Holding these sorts of Christian films to the standards of what we might roughly conceive of as “real movies" feels a bit silly: like rating an unleavened communion wafer against a piping hot pain au chocolat. The predictable plotting, the goofy dialogue, the wooden performances (and by capable actors) likely don’t matter a whit to the film’s target audience of good Christians hungry for good Christian entertainment. For the already faithful, believing in John’s miraculous recovery demands not a leap of faith, but a small hop. The film tells them absolutely nothing that they don’t already presume themselves to know. So what, then, is its point?
In a telling moment, Grace’s Pastor Noble (his real name, somehow) says that young congregations these days need “a little more cowbell” – that extra dose of pizzazz that makes the tedious work of humbling one’s soul before God seem enticing, even cool. That, perhaps, is the role movies like Breakthrough serve. They are simple sermons dressed up in seductive trappings of Hollywood cinema.
Breakthrough opens April 17.