Sunday, April 21, 2019

Breakthrough (2019): A Review


I found Breakthrough to be a surprising step in the world of Christian cinema. Unlike past Christian films, Breakthrough was not about a spiritual conversion for any of the characters main or secondary. Unlike most more mainstream films with Christian characters, Breakthrough did not make the Christians out to be dangerous, stupid or hypocritical. Instead, Breakthrough did what few films both Christian and secular have done with characters of faith: portray them as actual people, ones with virtues and flaws, neither saintly or satanic.

It may come as a genuine surprise, but Christians are people too.

Based on a true story, Breakthrough is about the Smith family. John Smith (Marcel Ruiz) is a basketball-obsessed preteen who carries anger despite the love of his parents Joyce (Chrissy Metz) and Brian (Josh Lucas). John was adopted by the Smiths when they served on a Guatemalan mission. As such, he has a sense of being unwanted. This, coupled with the more traditional pulling away of all teens causes tension within the home.

Joyce has more tensions with their church's minister, Pastor Jason (Topher Grace). He is far too progressive for Joyce's taste with his funky hair, California manner, introducing rap into the praise and worship and drawing parallels between Christ and The Bachelor. He also bungles things by being clueless about her women's ministry, though John seems more receptive to Jason's modernizing (the rap in particular to his liking).

Over the 2015 Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, John goes to stay with friends when all three fall through the ice. Two of the boys are rescued quickly, but John is under the cold waters for at least a quarter of an hour. While he is rescued, the prospects for John surviving are almost none. Joyce calls upon her faith to revive her only son, prayers that appear to be answered.

Over the next three days as John continues to fight, Joyce, Brian, Jason, the specialist Dr. Garrett (Dennis Haysbert) and atheist EMT Tommy Shine (Mike Coulter), along with others in their circles pray, fight, forgive and accept things both temporal and eternal.

Image result for breakthrough movieBreakthrough has a quiet manner to it, thanks in large part to director Roxann Dawson and Grant Nieporte's adaptation of Joyce Smith's book. Where in other films certain moments such as John's last-minute basketball shot, his fall through the ice or Joyce's desperate cry to the Holy Spirit for essentially John's resurrection might have been big, Dawson keeps them low-key.

This makes those moments carry more impact or power because they don't call attention to themselves. John's fall through the ice, though expected, comes through quite quietly, no big dramatic music or shots of crackling ice. Similarly, when Joyce is at John's lifeless body, we get shots of the hospital staff hearing her cries of pain and calling out to God along with shots of her. This I think adds to the drama by allowing us to see how both the pain of losing a child and the genuine shock of his sudden revival affect others.

Breakthrough also does well by portraying our four main characters (Joyce, Brian, John and Jason) as decent but flawed. While one would expect Joyce to be shown as the best character, she is given negative qualities: she is judgmental, hard and harsh on her somewhat hippie-drippy pastor and at times tyrannical on those who don't hold to her faith be it the agnostic Dr. Garrett or Brian. She can lack compassion towards her husband's doubts and fears and resistant to Jason's sincere overtures.

John can be dismissive, Brian as mentioned doubtful. Sometimes though the flaws are played for laughs, such as when in a moment of enthusiasm Jason blurts out a "Hell Yeah!", startling Joyce before a sheepish Jason realizes what he said. Joyce too is allowed some moments of humor, such as when she accidentally reveals she was the 'anonymous' writer of a single-spaced two-page letter complaining about the rap in the worship.

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Breakthrough is held aloft by some good performances, particularly Metz as Joyce. Whether she is openly hostile to Jason or mournful with John or accepting of whatever God's will is, her tenacity mixed with vulnerability wins you over. Grace as Jason seems a little unsure of himself but he does a commendable job as the progressive pastor who wants to be a shepherd to his flock. Colter as the EMT who struggles between his atheism and his confusion and Ruiz as John, prickly but also soft-hearted, also do well. Haysbert excels as Dr. Garrett, professional physician who won't sugarcoat anything and sees John as an interesting case but whom he works to save.

It's a pity that Lucas is reduced apart from the beginning and end of the film as perpetually weepy, with only one moment where his struggles between faith and doubt come up.

I think Breakthrough's best quality is that it does not lock things away neatly. A subplot is introduced where others on the periphery of the story question why John survived and their loved ones did not. Some of his Christian school classmates can be mean-spirited and obnoxious (though another subplot involving John's frenemy is not deeply explored). Breakthrough cannot offer answers on these questions on why he lived while others died.

It would put too much of a burden on his young shoulders; however, the fact that issues of doubt and legalism even among believers are introduced in a Christian film, that the Christian characters are shown as flawed and the non-believing characters are shown as decent is a positive step in Christian cinema.

My experience has been that too many Christian films, particularly in the oeuvre of the Christiano and Kendrick Brothers, sin barely exists and doubt is virtually nonexistent. Non-believers either don't exist or are malevolent. Their films tend to be about conversions, usually the main character or the audience. In Breakthrough, the Christian characters have doubts and flaws, the non-Christian characters have virtues and positive qualities.

Breakthrough is indeed that: a breakthrough in how Christians are portrayed to both secular and believing audiences. It's a moving story that asks questions, trust audiences to come to their own answers and keeps our attention.

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