In the growing faith-based film industry, movies inspired by the true stories of medical miracles are ideal film fodder. They're more accessible to mainstream audiences than biblical tales or conservative political fiction, and in pitting faith against medical science, they present seemingly hard proof of the existence of God — or whatever mystical forces of the universe one might believe in.
Based on an actual incident, “Breakthrough” is produced by DeVon Franklin, who also did the medical miracle film “Miracles From Heaven,” starring Jennifer Garner. Directed by Roxann Dawson and written by Grant Nieporte, “Breakthrough” is one of the more authentically moving entries in the genre, fueled by a gripping lead performance from “This Is Us” star Chrissy Metz. While the power of prayer is certainly praised, one can't help but be truly struck by the strength of a fierce mother who practically wills her son back to health.
Metz stars as Joyce Smith, the proud mother of basketball-obsessed John (Marcel Ruiz), whom she adopted on a Central American mission trip with her husband, Brian (Josh Lucas). Mother and son are going through typical teenage angst and emotional growing pains while John tests out his freedom and questions his identity and roots.
But there's no mistaking this mother's love, biological or not, when John suffers a catastrophic accident. While playing with some friends on a frozen lake, the ice breaks and John slips under. He's submerged for 15 minutes until rescued by a fire department emergency responder, Tommy (Mike Colter), who hears a voice that compels him to keep sweeping, searching for the boy. For 45 minutes, John has no pulse, until Joyce begins to pray over his unresponsive body in the ER.
“Breakthrough” is fairly formulaic in its storytelling of faith, persistence and positive thinking. God is represented in gusts of wind that seem to ethereally sparkle, and in the sound of voices raised in song. Cinematically, there isn't much of a breakthrough, or breaking of a mold, when it comes to how these stories are told.
But what distinguishes the film is the daring depiction of a complex, flawed, fierce and faithful woman. Joyce is devoted to her family, but she turns up her nose at the new pastor in town, the ultra-hip Jason (Topher Grace), with his slick haircut and trendy wardrobe. Outspoken and overprotective, she admonishes anyone who doesn't speak positivity into John's environment, refusing to hear anything other than “full recovery.” Her loyalty is impressive, but her delivery is less than graceful. Her husband begs her to incorporate a little softness, to surrender some mental and emotional control.
It's refreshing to see a mother in this situation depicted in all her humanity. It's more inspiring to see someone who isn't perfectly saintly in a film like this, underscoring the idea that miracles can happen to anyone, anywhere. Whether belief or faith in a Christian understanding of God has anything to do with that is up to the viewer to decide.
But the true, tangible miracle here is one of a loving community, visualized in a moving scene at the end of the film, where Pastor Jason recognizes everyone who worked on John's rescue and recovery. It wasn't just God at work, but the loving efforts of many, many people. And isn't that the biggest miracle of all?
Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.
Rated: PG, for thematic content including peril
Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
Playing: Starts April 17 in general release