Running on faith Christian filmmakers turn to God — and a fair bit of melodrama — in Manitoba-shot Breakthrough

Ostensibly coming under the umbrella of the “faith-based” movie, the true genre progenitor of the movie Breakthrough is the “weepie.”

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 16/04/2019 (1267 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Ostensibly coming under the umbrella of the “faith-based” movie, the true genre progenitor of the movie Breakthrough is the “weepie.”

Movie review

Starring Chrissy Metz and Topher Grace
Rated G, 117 minutes
Polo Park, St. Vital
★★★ out of five

As the name suggests, this is a movie that won’t be happy until you’re sitting in a puddle of your own tears.

Produced by DeVon Franklin, the preacher-producer who was also behind the Manitoba-lensed Heaven is for Real in 2014, this is likewise a movie that retells a true story — in this case about the miraculous recovery of a 14-year-old Missouri drowning victim — and pulls out all the stops to make the case that this is the work of God, and not some kind of anomaly.

Chrissy Metz (Joyce Smith) and Marcel Ruiz (John Smith) star in Breakthrough. (Allen Fraser / Twentieth Century Fox)
Pulling out all the stops means getting you invested in a story that sees loving parents faced with the prospect of losing their children. Roxann Dawson, a TV director and actor making her feature-film directing debut, proves to be pretty skilled at that task.

It doesn’t hurt that she’s got Chrissy Metz as her lead actress, likewise making her feature debut. Through her work on the drama series This Is Us, Metz has proved to be a melodrama powerhouse. In Breakthrough, it may be said she is not so much “cast” as “deployed.”

Metz is Joyce Smith, a nice Midwestern wife and mother, devoted to hubby Brian (Josh Lucas) and especially her 14-year-old adoptive son John (Marcel Ruiz).

She’s an avid churchgoer, although the new minister Pastor Jason (Topher Grace) rubs her the wrong way with his “California” haircut, and his penchant for bringing rappers up to perform with… the usual Christian rock band. (Apparently, in my long absence, church has changed.)

But John has got some issues, even more than usual for a 14-year-old. Adopted by his parents from Guatemala when he was an infant, he struggles with instances of racism at school, as well as an assignment that requests he describe his own ancestry. John would rather play basketball, a sport at which he has real talent.

But one frosty January Monday on Martin Luther King Day, John and two of his buddies head out on the ice of a lake near their St. Louis suburb.

The film was shot around Winnipeg, which we can surmise when we see local actor Cory Wojcik is the guy yelling at the kids to get off the damn ice. (He doesn’t really say “damn.” In fact, the word is even excised from the song Uptown Funk playing on the soundtrack in the opening minutes. Christian movie.)

The ice does indeed break, all three boys fall into the icy water, but only John loses consciousness and sinks to the bottom.

When an emergency-response team arrives to rescue them, one of them, Tommy Shine (Mike Colter) hears what he assumes is the chief’s voice telling him to “go back” to find John’s body on the lake floor. It’s made into a big deal when it emerges that the chief issued no such order.

John is indeed discovered, but he is not breathing and has no pulse after 15 minutes under water. He is brought to the hospital where the prognosis is grim, until his mom comes by his bedside, ostensibly to say goodbye.

Instead, Joyce fervently prays to God to return her son to life. And immediately, John’s vital signs produce a reading. And while a specialist (Dennis Haysbert) asserts John is not out of the woods and is likely to have severe brain damage, well, the miracles aren’t done yet.

Joyce Smith (Chrissy Metz) prays for her son John (Marcel Ruiz) alongside Pastor Jason (Topher Grace). (Allen Fraser / Twentieth Century Fox)

Director Dawson and screenwriter Grant Nieporte make a great effort to dispel notions that there may be scientific explanations for John’s survival in a rush to assert that God exists… and answers prayers.

Coupled with a relentless assault on the emotions, and Grace’s considerable charm as the helpful pastor, this is Christian propaganda of a high order.

Get ready to shed a few tears during this weepie. (Allen Fraser / Twentieth Century Fox)
What’s redemptive about all this is that in this specific time, the film has a subversive edge to it. Stateside, just now, the president of the United States has launched a cruel campaign against those of Latin heritage entering the country, even separating children from their parents, with the support of a supposedly evangelical base.

Here then, is a film that suggests to those same evangelicals a Guatemalan-born child is not only worthy of saving, but may be destined for some kind of greatness.

Preaching to the choir usually means telling your audience what they already know or what they want to hear. Breakthrough does that, certainly. But in the preaching, perhaps, is a pointed reminder of something many of the flock must have forgotten.

Twitter: @FreepKing

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Randall King

Randall King

In a way, Randall King was born into the entertainment beat.

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