Chrissy Metz (television's This Is Us) is the mother we all want and need in Breakthrough, the latest faith-based feature from producer DeVon Franklin (Miracles From Heaven). Based on a true story, Metz portrays Joyce Smith, the mother, and don't you dare call her adoptive mother, of John (Marcel Ruiz), a basketball obsessed teenager whom she adopted as a young boy when she and her husband Brian (Josh Lucas) were on a mission trip.
The Smiths are an ordinary family, though outspokenly faithful from the beginning of the story there's is a family that struggles with all the issues adoptive families struggle with and there's a light yet refreshing honesty about it all here. This is a real family, foibles and all.
John is out playing with some friends on a frozen lake when tragedy strikes and he falls through a break in the ice and is submerged for a solid 15 minutes until rescued by Tommy (Mike Colter), a first responder who continues trying to bring life back into John far past the time when most medical professionals would have given up.
With no pulse for 45 minutes, John's prognosis is beyond poor. It's in these scenes, absolutely riveting ones, that Chrissy Metz practically breathes life into her son herself, prayerfully willing the young man back to life through the love of her God and the love of a mother who simply refuses to give up on him. Even when the script, penned by Grant Nieporte, occasionally falls back into the usual paint-by-number faith-based flick familiar notes, Metz is never less than compelling and she practically wills even the film back on track when it threatens to derail.
It never derails.
Where the script really excels is in its complex development of Metz's Joyce Smith, a refreshingly flawed and not nearly saintly woman who's not afraid to rub people the wrong way and doesn't particularly care for Topher Grace's Pastor Jason, a newbie in the small town with his chiseled looks and hipster ways who doesn't seem to fit into this otherwise normal small town based upon the real life small town in which the story unfolded of St. Joseph, MO.
Of course, we do all know how that will play out yet it still plays out with richness and honesty.
Director Roxann Dawson doesn't necessarily break a lot of new ground, though what she does do extraordinarily well is find the truth in a larger than life story and bring it out in a way that feels natural and lacking in histrionics. While there's never a moment when we doubt that Breakthrough is a faith-based film, it's also a remarkably accessible one in which the love of family and the value of community are also celebrated.
Breakthrough is also that rare faith-based film that gives some respect to the medical community, yet it does so without ever compromising its faith. The film, which has NBA star Stephen Curry as one of its executive producers, features an absolutely terrific ensemble cast. Ruiz is compelling as the 14-year-old John, a cocksure guard on his school's basketball team who seems to constantly conflict with his parents, resent going to church, and isn't particularly thrilled with studying. There's an air of arrogance about John that you can't help but find a little irritating, an arrogance that follows him even as he practically intimidates a couple of friends to join him on the ice. It's a difficult performance to keep us caring about John even through all that teenage teenagery, but Ruiz is up to the task and pulls it off quite effectively.
In addition to Metz's absolutely wonderful performance, Josh Lucas shines as John's more even-tempered, realistic father and Mike Colter, of Luke Cage, gives passion and spark to the screen as the rescuer who starts a rather cyclical refusal to give up on John. It's wonderful seeing Dennis Haysbert on the big screen, here playing the physician who cares for John when he's transferred to a St. Louis facility.
Breakthrough is an intelligent, compassionate film that understands the multiple layers of trauma and how they play out in families and churches, communities and even within healthcare settings. It's a film centered boldly within its faith, but it's a faith that's lived into rather than simply the story itself. That gives the film a depth and substance, spark and accessibility that could very well turn this film into a crossover success.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic