April 12, 2019
On January 19, 2015, John Smith was playing on an iced-over lake in Missouri with some friends when the ice broke underneath them. While the other two got out, John remained in the water for 20 minutes before rescue services found him and took him to a nearby hospital. The rescue efforts seemed fruitless until his mother, Joyce, prayed over him and his heart began beating. Inspired by Joyce Smith’s 2017 book, The Impossible: The Miraculous Story of a Mother’s Faith and Her Child’s Resurrection, the movie Breakthrough tracks the events leading up to and following the accident, offering up a story of family and faith inspired by real events.
For many, when they hear that a religion-tinged film is coming out, around a holiday no less, there’s a feeling of “otherness” that comes over them. There’s an expectation of a certain level of preachiness or how the dialogue will be more focused on faith than on narrative. Both screenwriter Grant Nieporte (Seven Pounds) and director Roxann Dawson (This Is Us) seem keenly aware of this stigma and largely deliver a film which balances the narrative of the film with a message of faith. Doing so not only makes the film accessible to a wider, secular audience, but also enables the faithful to be seen and heard.
Top-down, Dawson creates a cinematic experience which rarely feels patronizing or preachy. Instead, she reduces melodrama by keeping the characters in the moment, electing to sprinkle a little cinematic trickery throughout the whole film. For example, the opening of the film features the same image as the poster: a shot of John slowly sinking in water. The camera starts from below, slowly shifting its position until it’s above him while meditative music plays in the background. This is the moment audiences know is coming and, by getting it up front and making it seem peaceful, Dawson not only deescalates one of the most horrifying aspects of the film, but makes it seem like a dream.
The film is an interpretation of events taken from a book, itself an interpretation, so this opening simultaneously establishes an overall tone for Breakthrough while also taking much of the expectation of what’s to come out of the equation. Immediately, Dawson changes the tone by using John waking up to Bruno Mars’s “Uptown Funk,” which is used to lighten the mood and introduce the film’s players. All throughout Breakthrough, moments like these are used to balance the inherent tension and drama of a film about such a preventable disaster. Concurrently, each member of the cast Dawson assembled– Chrissy Metz, Josh Lucas, Topher Grace, Mike Coulter, Sam Trammell, and Dennis Haysbert– makes their respective moments more human and less saccharine or, worse, self-righteous. Though the script does involve several moments that are more focused on a message than the story, the cast manages to prevent the whole of the film from dipping too deeply, maintaining emotionality and keeping Breakthrough from talking down to its audience.
Still, there are a few moments which are likely to distract some audience members. When Breakthrough presents one of Pastor Jason Noble’s sermons, it is after a slightly prolonged musical number from the church band, portrayed by Christian artists Lecrae and Phil Wickham. The song “This Amazing Grace” is lovely and engaging, and the sequence serves to highlight how uneven the parishioners feel about Noble’s approach to worship. That said, the fact that it runs for the greater length of the song, rather than a snippet, makes the sequence feel like a music video. Music takes over other scenes as well, often more successfully; but this musical number is one of several moments that cater to Christian audience members more than the story.
The liberties taken to translate the story for theatrical audiences lean more toward creating moments than staying grounded in reality. Later, in one of the more bold choices, Nieporte’s script takes a sudden turn into the types of questions people ask during and after tragedy. Considering the largely uplifting nature of Breakthrough, these questions are important to ponder, yet pausing to focus on them adds unnecessary pressure to the individuals who experienced the event. It’s one thing to ask “why do bad things happen to good people,” but it’s another to ask that of someone who’s been through it. Strangely, by finding different ways to ask this question in the run up to the conclusion, the tone of Breakthrough shifts dramatically from buoyant to distressing. This is likely not the intention of either Dawson or Nieporte, yet once these troubling notions creep into your experience with the movie, they’re difficult to ignore.
The story of John Smith is a tough one to endure and one which Dawson treats with incredible delicacy by pulling performances from the cast which honor the event. This sometimes means not putting people in the best light or finding ways to serve the emotion over truth. As adaptations go, Breakthrough is emotionally powerful and is likely to uplift audiences, faithful or not. Like all good stories the underlying message here is that what brings us together is far more important than what separates us. In that message, there is strength, there is hope, and there is love.
Star Rating: 4 out of 5.